Saigon Through the Eyes of Early Travellers – George Finlayson in 1822

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The title page of The mission to Siam, and Hué, the capital of Cochin China, in the years 1821-2. From the journal of the late George Finlayson … With a memoir of the author, by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, F.R.S (1826)

In 1821-1822, Lord Hastings, the Governor-General of India, sent a British trade mission to Siam and Cochinchina led by John Crawfurd. Scottish naturalist George Finlayson (1790–1823) accompanied the mission, and his journal, published posthumously in 1826 as The mission to Siam, and Hué, the capital of Cochin China in the years 1821-2, provides some fascinating observations about Gia Định under the governance of Viceroy Lê Văn Duyệt.

August 28th-29th: At 6pm we left our ship, a salute being fired on the occasion, and the ship’s crew giving us three cheers. The Annamite [Vietnamese] barge selected for our transportation was comfortably as well as elegantly finished. Continuing to row all night, notwithstanding that it rained incessantly, by daylight we were but a short way from Saigon, and reached it at 9am. The boat was furnished with a suitable number of officers. The discipline of the men rested chiefly with the second, whose rank may have been equal to that of sergeant or corporal. He cheered the rowers by the repetition of a few wild cries, which could scarce deserve the name of a song, beating time to the stroke of the oar by means of two short sticks of hard wood. The discipline of these soldiers is severe, for even this petty officer had the power of inflicting several hundred lashes of the rattan stick for the slightest offence. The rattan stick was kept in constant exercise, as we found on our arrival at the town.

1820s William Anderson -Shipping on the Thames off Deptford- oil on panel 31.8 x 43.2 cm National Maritime Museum, London

The Crawfurd mission travelled in the John Adam, a ship similar to the one depicted in William Anderson’s painting Shipping on the Thames off Deptford, oil on panel, National Maritime Museum, London

The river of Saigon is about the size of that of Siam, but appears to carry a greater body of water. It is navigable to ships of all sizes. It is less tortuous than most rivers, and its waters are less turbid. Its banks are mostly covered with mangrove. We found among them a very elegant species of rhizophora [a genus of tropical mangrove], but observed no cultivation until we were within 20 or 30 miles of the town. The number of boats that we passed was but infrequent.

As we approached the town, we were surprised to find it of such extent. It is built chiefly on the right bank of the river. We had already passed a distance of several miles and were still in the midst of it. The houses are large, very wide, and for the climate, very comfortable. The roofs are tiled, and supported on handsome large pillars of a heavy, durable black wood, called sao. The walls are formed of mud, enclosed in frames of bamboo and plastered. The floor is boarded, and elevated several feet from the ground. The houses are placed close to each other, disposed in straight lines, along spacious and well-aired streets, or along the banks of canals. The plan of the streets is superior to that of many European capitals.

We were conducted to a house that had been prepared to receive us. Several thousands of the people, besides a numerous guard of soldiers armed with lances, were collected to receive us. The crowd conducted themselves with a degree of propriety, order, decency, and respect, that was alike pleasing as it was novel to us. All of them were dressed, and the greater number in a very comfortable manner. They all appeared to us remarkably small; the rotundity of their face and liveliness of their features were particularly striking. The mandarin who had accompanied us on the barge conducted us to our house and placed us in the hall, seated upon benches covered with mats, opposite each other. A number of people were in attendance to take up our baggage, and to make such arrangements in our quarters as we should deem necessary.

Saigon map 1793

This 1793 map of Saigon shows the location of the 1790 Gia Định Citadel

The house was one of the best in the town. It was difficult to say whether it partook more of a temple, or of a court of justice. In every house, in every building, whether public or private, even in the slightest temporary shed, is placed something to remind you of religion, or, to speak more accurately, of the superstitious disposition of the people; and as the emblems of this nature have for the most part a brilliant appearance, they produce an effect as agreeable to the first glance as it is striking. At one end of this hall was an altar, dedicated to Fo, ornamented with various emblematical figures, and hung round with inscriptions. It was easy to perceive that affairs of state and of religion were inseparable here. Each partakes of the same gold and the same varnish.

Immediately behind the hall were placed our private apartments. A crowd of soldiers at all times filled the court and the ante-room, and a guard was placed in attendance at the gate and wicket.

At noon, two mandarins of justice came to confer with the Agent of the Governor General. We received them upon our benches, immediately in front of the altar of Fo. They were men who had passed the age of 50, short in stature, of easy and affable manners. They were dressed in black turbans, and black robes of silk. They commenced the conversation by making enquiries about our accommodation; then they turned to the objects of the mission, asking how long it had been since we had left Bengal; whether the letter for the King of Cochin China was from the King of England, or from the Governor General of India; what were the precise objectives of the mission; whether we had orders to visit Saigon, or the contrary; and if we had been at the court of Siam. To all of these queries, the answers were so plain and so candid that it seemed impossible that they could either misunderstand or misrepresent them. However, on one or two subjects, they showed the greatest anxiety. We were earnestly and repeatedly asked if we came into their country with friendly or hostile intentions. This subject was urged with so much earnestness that it was impossible not to forgive their fears, though groundless, and to participate in feelings which appeared to proceed solely from the love they bore for their country.

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French-era illustrations of Nguyễn dynasty court scenes

They now requested that the letter to the King of Cochin China should be sent for, in order that the Viceroy of Saigon might be enabled to forward a translation to court, together with a full report upon the subject of our visit, but it was thought improper to comply with this request for the present. They seemed quite satisfied with the answers that were given, and continued the interview for nearly six hours, conversing almost all the while on matters of business. Before their departure, they ordered provisions for our use; and soon after, a live pig, ducks, fowls, eggs, sugar, plantains and rice were delivered to us.

In the evening, we were visited by Monsieur Diard, a lively and well-educated Frenchman of the medical profession, who had been led into these countries by his desire to prosecute subjects of natural history. He had already traversed most of the Indian islands, in which he had made numerous and valuable zoological discoveries, the subject which had principally attracted his attention. Already he had discovered four or five new species of primate, and as many species of the genus sciurus [squirrel]. In Java, he discovered that the large deer of that place was a species altogether unknown to naturalists. He thought that he had discovered a fourth species of rhinoceros, and was satisfied that the Sumatran species is a distinct one. The number of new species of birds which he has discovered is very considerable.

Monsieur Diard is evidently a man of great enterprise and acuteness, and admirably qualified for the arduous pursuit in which he is engaged. He is fond of adventure and ingenious in overcoming obstacles. From him we may expect a full account of the zoology of these countries. He has wisely assumed the costume, and adopted the manners of the people among whom he resides. If there be anything amiss in the character of Diard, it is (and it is with hesitation and doubt that I make this remark), perhaps, a disposition to over-rate the number, extent, and value of his discoveries; and perhaps too, an ardour of zeal which may be apt to lead one beyond the precise limits of accurate observation. He has been about a year in Cochin China, and four months at this place. It is with the greatest difficulty that he can obtain from the government permission to visit any part of the interior. He had but very few objects of natural history, in consequence, to show us.

August 30th: On going out in the morning, the guard placed at the gate seemed doubtful whether he ought to let me pass. On my approach, however, he drew back respectfully; but he strenuously objected to allow any of our people to pass the gate, until, seeing me wait for the painter, he permitted him to accompany me. An early visit to the market places served to confirm the observations I have already made respecting the manners of the people.

10 Mandarins civil et militaire

A royal mandarin being carried in procession

The Cochin Chinese cannot, I think, be considered as a handsome people in any way, yet, among the females, there are many that are even handsome, as well as remarkably fair, and their manners are engaging, without possessing any of that looseness of character which, according to the relation of French travellers, prevails amongst this people. The conduct of both sexes is agreeable to the strictest decorum. Chastity, in which they have been accused to be wanting, would appear to be observed, in the married state, with as much strictness as amongst neighbours, or any other Asiatic nation. The breach of it is held criminal, disgraceful, and liable to punishment. It is not so, however, with regard to young and unmarried females. Here the utmost latitude is allowed, and, for a trifling pecuniary consideration, the father will deliver up his daughter to the embraces of the stranger or visitor. No disgrace, no stigma, attaches to the character of the female, nor does this sort of connexion subsequently prevent her from procuring a suitable husband.

Such commodities as are used by the natives are to be found in great abundance in every bazaar. No country, perhaps, produces more betel or areca-nut than this. Betel-leaf less abundantly; fish, salted and fresh; rice, sweet potatoes of excellent quality, Indian corn, the young shoots of the bamboo, prepared by boiling. Rice, in the germinating state, coarse sugar, plantains, oranges, pomelos, custard apples, pomegranates and arid tobacco were to be had in the greatest quantity. Pork is sold in every bazaar, and poultry of an excellent description is very cheap. Alligator’s flesh is held in great esteem, and our Chinese interpreter stated that dog’s flesh is also sold here.

The shops are of convenient size, in which the wares are disposed to the best advantage. One circumstance it is impossible to overlook, as it exhibits a marked difference of taste and manners in this people from that of the nations of India. Articles of European manufacture have, amongst the latter, in many instances, usurped the use of their own; and you can scarce name any thing of European manufacture which is not to be had in the bazaars. Here, with the sole exception of three or four case bottles of coarse glass, there was no article whatsoever to be found that bore the least resemblance to anything European. A different standard of taste prevails. A piece of cotton cloth was scarce to be seen. Crepes, satins and silks are alone in use, the greater number of them the manufacture of China or of Tonquin, there being, in fact, little or no manufacturing industry here.

Market scene

An engraving of a Saigon market scene

The articles which they themselves had made were not numerous. I may specify the following: handsome and coarse mats, matting for the sails of boats and junks, coarse baskets, gilt and varnished boxes, umbrellas, handsome silk purses, in universal use, and carried both by men and women; iron nails, and a rude species of scissors.

Everything else was imported from the surrounding countries. In exchange, their territory affords rice in abundance, cardamoms, pepper, sugar, ivory, betel, etc.

There are a few wealthy Chinese who carry on an extensive trade here; the bulk of the people are miserably poor, and but few amongst them are in a condition to trade but upon the most limited scale.

Few of the shops in the bazaars appear to contain goods of greater value than might be purchased for 40 or 60 dollars, and the greater number are not worth half that sum.

It is difficult to conceive that a population so extensive can exist together in this form, with trade on so small a scale.

There are, in fact, two cities here, each of them as large as the capital of Siam. That more recently built is called Bingeh [Bến Nghé, later Saigon]; the other, situated at a distance of a mile or two, is called Saigon [Tai Ngon or Dī Àn 堤岸, literally “embankment,” the name used from the 1780s until the 1860s to describe Chợ Lớn].

The former is contiguous to a fortress which has been constructed of late years on the principles of European fortification. It is furnished with a regular glacis, a wet ditch and a high rampart, and commands the surrounding country. It is of square form, and each side is about half a mile in extent. It is in an unfinished state, no embrasures being made, nor cannon mounted on the rampart. The zig-zag is very short, the passage into the gate straight; the gates are handsome and ornamented in the Chinese style. We could not procure any information respecting the population of the two cities.

Citadelle de Saigon - Emplacement_Ancienne_Citadelle

This late 19th century map drawn shows the location of the 1790 and 1835 citadels in relation to the colonial street plan of Saigon

A mandarin of higher rank, together with the two we saw yesterday, came to transact business with the Agent of the Governor General; a protracted conversation, in all respects similar to that which had taken place yesterday, was commenced by him. He insisted that the letter, as well as Mr Crawfurd’s credentials, should be sent for; this point was acceded to, and a boat was immediately despatched to the ship for the letter to the King of Cochin China. The mandarins continued with us till a late hour in the evening.

August 31st: At 11am the letter arrived, and in the course of an hour thereafter, the mandarins who had visited us first came to ascertain its authenticity and to report upon its contents. It was late in the evening before they could be made to understand the subject of it, or the nature of the Governor General’s proposals respecting commerce. An English copy of the letter, and translations in Portuguese and Chinese, were furnished to them. Monsieur Diard was present at, and took a part in, the conferences that were held with the mandarins.

September 1st: It would appear that the Viceroy had no objections to offer upon the subject of the documents which had been furnished yesterday; a mandarin now returned for copies of them, stating that those which had first been furnished were to be despatched immediately to Court. As soon as these had been furnished, we set out in a boat with Monsieur Diard to visit Saigon [Chợ Lớn].

The distance of this town from the Citadel is about three miles, but there are houses along the banks of the river the greater part of the way. The paucity of junks and coasting vessels in the river was accounted for by the lateness of the season. The number of boats that were passing and repassing was, however, very considerable. The country here presented the appearance of extreme fertility; the banks were covered with areca and coconut trees, plantains, jackfruit and other fruit trees.

Cholon 1815

This 1815 map shows the “Chợ Saigon” or Saigon Market in what is now Chợ Lớn – the name comes from Tai Ngon or Dī Àn 堤岸, literally “embankment,” which was used from the 1780s until the 1860s to describe Chợ Lớn, but was later appropriated by the French to rename Bến Nghé

Numerous navigable canals intersect the country in every direction, offering every facility for the increase of commercial industry. Here, as in Siam, the more laborious occupations are often performed by women, and the boats upon the river are in general rowed by them. A practice, as ungallant as it is unjust, prevails both here and in Siam; that of making females only to pay for being ferried across rivers, the men always passing free. The reason alleged for this practice is that the men are all supposed to be employed on the King’s service. It is lamentable to observe how large a proportion of the men in this country are employed in occupations that are totally unproductive to the state, as well as subversive of national industry. Every petty mandarin is attended by a multitude of persons.

The town of Saigon [Chợ Lớn] is built upon a considerable branch of the great river, and upon the banks of numerous canals. It is the centre of the commerce of this fertile province, the town of Bingeh [Saigon] being but little engaged in such pursuits. A few settlers from China carry on trade on an extensive scale, but the Cochin Chinese are for the most part too poor to engage in occupations of this nature.

We landed in about the middle of the town, and after proceeding a short way, we entered the house of a Chinese. He received us with great civility, and invited us to partake of refreshments; he said that he was anxious for traffic with the English, and had now upon his hands commodities suited for that trade.

We passed several hours in visiting various parts of the town, and returned to our quarters in the evening highly gratified with all we had seen, and with the most favourable impression of the manners and disposition of the people. The attention, kindness and hospitality we had experienced so far exceeded what we had hitherto observed of Asiatic nations, so that we could not but fancy ourselves among a people of entirely different character. We were absolute strangers who had come to pass a few hours only in the town; yet in almost every street we were invited by the more wealthy Chinese to enter their houses, and to partake of refreshments. They could not have known beforehand that we were to visit the place, yet some of the entertainments laid out for us were in a style of elegance and abundance that bespoke the affluence, as well as the hospitality, of our hosts.

Emile Gsell early colonial

An early colonial shot of the Saigon River by Emile Gsell

Amongst others, we were invited by three brothers who had been settled in the country for some time. They wore the Cochin Chinese dress, and in appearance differed but little from the native inhabitants. Their manners were engaging, perfectly easy and polite; their house was both handsome and spacious, nor did anything appear wanting to render it a very superior mansion, even in the opinion of a European. They received us in a large, well-furnished ante-room; a table was soon covered with a profusion of fruits, the most delicate sweetmeats, and a variety of cakes and jellies. They insisted upon attending us at table themselves, nor could they be induced to seat themselves while we were present. Tea was served to us in small cups; a large table was also spread for our followers, who were supplied with sweetmeats in profusion. Our hosts conversed but little; they were apparently as much pleased with our visit as we were with the kind reception they had given us.

Let others say from what motives so much hospitality and attention were bestowed upon perfect strangers by these intelligent and liberal-minded Chinese; for my own part, I must do them the justice to believe that they were of the most disinterested nature.

The bazaars of Saigon [Chợ Lớn] contain in greater abundance all that is to be found in those of Bingeh [Saigon]. Coarse China and Tonquin crepes, silks and satins, Chinese fans, porcelain, etc, are the more common wares in the shops. The streets are straight, wide, and convenient, the population extensive. We entered a very handsome Chinese temple, built in good taste and highly ornamented. The Cochin Chinese temples, though apparently dedicated to the same objects of worship, are of inferior appearance.

September 2nd: We were told that the Viceroy would give an audience to the Agent of the Governor General at an early hour. At about 10am, the mandarin who had conducted us from the ship came to say that the Viceroy awaited our arrival.

Being asked what conveyance had been prepared for us, he said that we must proceed on foot. This being objected to, five elephants were sent for. These were furnished with howdahs, such as are used by the natives of India.

6 Marshal Le Van Duyet

Royal Viceroy Marshal Lê Văn Duyệt (1763 or 1764–3 July 1832)

A few minutes’ journey brought us into the Citadel, where the Viceroy resides. His house, though large, is plain, and without ornament, in the interior or exterior. It is situated nearly in the centre of the fort, in an open space. When we had arrived within 50 yards of the entrance, we were requested to descend from our elephants and to proceed the remainder of the way on foot. A crowd of soldiers, armed chiefly with spears, occupied both sides of the court. The Viceroy, surrounded by the mandarins, was seated in a large hall, open in front. We advanced directly in front of him, and, taking off our hats, saluted him according to the manner of our country. Chairs had been provided and we took our seats a little in front, and to the right of the mandarins. In the back part of the hall sat the Viceroy, upon a plain, elevated platform, about 12 feet square, and covered with mats, on which were laid one or two cushions.

On a lower platform to his left, and a little in front, was seated his Deputy, a fine looking old man, who appeared to have passed the age of 70. Directly opposite to the latter, about a dozen mandarins dressed in black silk robes were seated in the Indian manner, on a platform similar to that opposite; and behind these stood a number of armed attendants, crowded into one place. In front of the Viceroy, two Siamese, who had come hither on their private affairs, lay prostrate on the ground, in the manner that they attend upon their own chiefs.

The Viceroy of Saigon [Marshal Lê Văn Duyệt] is reputed to be a eunuch and his appearance in some degree countenances that notion. He is apparently about 50 years of age, has an intelligent look and may be esteemed to possess considerable activity both of mind and body: his face is round and soft, his features flabby and wrinkled; he has no beard, and bears considerable resemblance to an old woman: his voice, too, is shrill and feminine; but this I have observed, though in a less degree, in other males of this nation. His dress is not merely plain, but almost sordid, and to the sight as mean as that of the poorest person.

He had requested that the letter from the Governor General of Bengal should be brought with us to the audience. Seeing it in my hand, he enquired what it was I held; and having examined the gold cloth in which it was contained, he returned it, at the same time observing that having, according to the custom of the country, taken copies, it must not be again opened.

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Civil (left) and Military (right) Nguyễn dynasty Mandarins (about 1820), an illuistration from John Crawfurd’s own Journal of an Embassy to the Courts of Siam and Cochin China, exhibiting a view of the actual State of these Kingdoms, London, 1828

He now enquired how long it was since we left Calcutta, and what our respective ages were. He observed that it was customary only for kings to write to kings. “How then,” asked he, “can the Governor General of Bengal address a letter to the King of Cochin China?”

He seemed to comprehend what the objects of the mission were and to view them in a favourable light. “All ships,” he observed, “are permitted to trade with Cochin China. “If,” he continued, “the subjects of the King of Cochin China visit Bengal or any other British settlement, it is right that while there, they should be amenable to the laws of the country and be judged by them in like manner that the subjects of other nations resorting to Cochin China should be governed and judged by the laws in use in that country; and that otherwise there could be no strict justice.”

He asked if we were going direct to Turon [Tourane, now Đà Nẵng] or to the port of Huế, and what conduct the Agent of the Governor General meant to pursue on arriving at that place. He was told that a report of our arrival should be immediately forwarded to court from that place; on which he observed that the Mandarin of the Elephants was in charge of matters of this nature, and would give all requisite information on the subject of commercial affairs.

I have described above, in general terms, the nature and extent of the conversation that transpired. The mandarins appeared to be perfectly at ease in the presence of the Viceroy, exhibiting neither fear nor awe of any kind. They frequently addressed questions to us during the interview. The conversation was carried on through the medium of the Portuguese language, by means of a native called Antonio.

Towards the close of the conversation, Monsieur Diard came in, dressed in the style of a mandarin, and took his seat beside us. Tea was offered to us, according to the usual custom.

Elephant Tiger Fight Chinese or Vietnamese Circus (Annam)

Elephant and tiger fights remained a popular recreational activity at the Nguyễn dynasty court well into the 20th century, as shown in this illustration from the Small Illustrated Newspaper of 9 October 1904

In front of the hall was a cage containing a very large tiger, which the Viceroy had caused to be caught, in order that he might exhibit to us a fight between that fiercest of animals, and the elephant. We were asked if the spectacle would be agreeable to us, and on our replying in the affirmative, he gave the necessary directions on the subject.

In the midst of a grassy plain, about a half a mile long and nearly as much in breadth, about 60 or 70 fine elephants were drawn up in several ranks, each animal being provided with a mahout and a howdah, which was empty. On one side were placed convenient seats; the Viceroy, mandarins, and a numerous train of soldiers being also present at the spectacle. A crowd of spectators occupied the side opposite.

The tiger was bound to a stake and placed in the centre of the plain by means of a stout rope fastened round his loins. We soon perceived how unequal was the combat; the claws of the poor animal had been torn out, and a strong stitch bound its lips together, preventing him from opening his mouth. On being turned loose from the cage, he attempted to bound over the plain, but finding all attempts to extricate himself useless, he threw himself at length upon the grass, till seeing a large elephant with long tusks approach, he got up to face the coming danger. The elephant was by this attitude, and the horrid growl of the tiger, too much intimidated, and turned aside, while the tiger pursued him heavily, and struck him with his fore paw upon the hind quarter, quickening his pace not a little.

The mahout succeeded in bringing the elephant to the charge again before he had gone far, and this time he rushed on furiously, driving his tusks into the earth under the tiger, and lifting him up, gave him a clear cast to the distance of about 30 feet. This was an interesting point in the combat; the tiger lay along on the ground as if he were dead, yet it appeared that he had received no material injury, for on the next attack, he threw himself into an attitude of defence, and as the elephant was again about to take him up, he sprung upon his forehead, fixing his hind feet upon the trunk of the former.

The elephant was wounded in this attack, and so much frightened that nothing could prevent him from breaking through every obstacle and fairly running off. The mahout was considered to have failed in his duty, and soon after was brought up to the Viceroy with his hands bound behind his back, and on the spot received a hundred lashes of the rattan.

Elephant-Parade-Hue

A Nguyễn dynasty elephant parade

Another elephant was now brought, but the tiger made less resistance on each successive attack. It was evident that the tosses he received must soon occasion his death. All the elephants were furnished with tusks, and the mode of attack in every instance, for several others were called forward, was that of rushing upon the tiger, thrusting their tusks under him, raising him and throwing him to a distance. Of their trunks they evidently were very careful, rolling them cautiously up under their chins. When the tiger was perfectly dead, an elephant was brought up, who, instead of raising the tiger on his tusks, seized him with his trunk, and in general cast him to the distance of 30 feet.

The tiger fight was succeeded by the representation of a combat of a different description. The object of it was to show with what steadiness a line of elephants was capable of advancing upon and passing the lines of the enemy. A double line of entrenchments was thrown up, and in front of it was placed upon sticks a quantity of combustible matter, with fireworks of various descriptions, and a few small pieces of artillery. In an instant, the whole was in a blaze, and a smart fire was kept up. The elephants advanced in line, at a steady and rapid pace, but though they went close up to the fire, there were very few that could be forced to pass it, all of them shuffling round it in some way or other. This attack was repeated a second time, and put an end to the amusements.

The Viceroy now called us to the place where he was seated, and said it would be agreeable to him if we would remain another day to see the city; and that a comedy should be prepared for our amusement. However, Mr Crawfurd stated our reasons for wishing to depart, and we took our leave of him, much gratified with the attention he had shown us.

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

Date with the Wrecking Ball – Saigon Tax Trade Centre, 1924

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The Saigon Tax Trade Centre today

Once the epitome of colonial chic, the former Grands Magasins Charner (GMC), better known as the Saigon Tax Trade Centre, was the city’s only surviving colonial-era department store. Located on a prime site in one of Hồ Chí Minh City’s numerous “đất vàng” (gold land) areas, it is now closed and awaiting demolition to make way for a 43-storey tower block.

The Grands Magasins Charner was not the first department store in the city – that honour went to the Au Nouveautés Catinat, a store founded in 1887 on place Francis Garnier (Lam Sơn square) by Corsican entrepreneur Lucien Berthet. But following its grand opening in 1924, the Grands Magasins Charner became the place to shop in Saigon.

13 Nouveautes Catinat

The earlier Au Nouveautés Catinat department store (1887)

At the turn of the 19th century, the site on which the Saigon Tax Trade Centre stands housed premises which were occupied by the Direction de l’Agriculture et du Commerce and the editorial board of the bimonthly Bulletin de la Chambre d’Agriculture de Cochinchine.

These premises – 135 boulevard Charner – later became home to a variety of other tenants, including the Syndicat des Planteurs (Planters Syndicate), the Société de protection des jeunes métis (Society for the Protection of Young Mixed-race Children) and the retail company, Bresset et Cie. During the World War I years, the automobile company Établissements Claudius Perrin also set up business here, selling Renault and de Dion-Bouton motor vehicles and Michelin tyres. However, when the site was acquired by the Union Commerciale Indochinoise et Africaine in 1921, existing tenants were moved out and the site was cleared.

Later that same year, the Union, which had just established a subsidiary known as the Société Coloniale des Grands Magasins to look after the running of its Grands Magasins Réunis in Hanoï, embarked on the construction of an even bigger luxury department store in Saigon. Construction got under way in 1922 and on 26 November 1924 the Grands Magasins Charner was inaugurated.

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The Grands Magasins Réunis Hanoï

A report in the Écho annamite newspaper of 27 November 1924 described the opening ceremony which was presided over by Mr Eutrope, representing the Governor of Cochinchine.

As “a huge crowd” gathered outside to peer into “the gleaming windows artistically filled with the pride of French industry,” invited guests were greeted at the door by company staff, “immaculate in their tuxedos, with the refined politeness of the perfect trader.”

The guests were treated to a guided tour of the new store, which comprised departments of perfumery, jewellery and silverware, millinery, lingerie, fabrics and silks, haberdashery, shoes, leather goods, porcelain, furnishings, hardware, toys and sports equipment, music, household goods, food, wines, spirits and tobacco, pharmacy, stationery and books, and – de rigueur for the wealthy colon – weapons, ammunition and hunting accessories. There was even a salon de manucure, a travel department and an in-house photographic studio.

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A 1927 advertisement for the Grands Magasins Charner

The Écho annamite reporter described the jewelry department as being “like one of those dream lands described in the Arabian Nights…. then, almost without transition, you are transported into the less futile domain of knowledge and thought – it’s the book department.”

“Elsewhere,” continued the breathless reporter, “gourmets will lick their lips in delight as they contemplate bottles of champagne of the most renowned brands and wines of the best vintages, proudly wearing their labels and stacked in rows like soldiers on review, alongside cans of biscuits and conserves piled in pyramids.”

The toy department seems to have made a particular impression, with its “dolls which say ‘mama, papa,’ or close their eyes when they are laid on their backs, toy figures which play cymbals when you pinch their bellies, stuffed animals which get up on their hind legs when you squeeze their attached rubber bulbs, model railways, clockwork cars with rubber wheels, etc etc.”

However, the reporter then decided to forego the other departments and head straight for the “luxurious salon de thé,” with its “excellent champagne, cookies, cakes and tasty sandwiches.”

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A view of the Grands Magasins Charner in the late 1940s

At the conclusion of the tour, the guests were seated around small tables where they sipped champagne and nibbled on pâtisserie while listening politely to speeches from Mr Eutrope and Mr Ribupe, representative of the Société des Grands Magasins, who explained that in order to ensure the supply of all the highest-quality goods, his company was affiliated with the Société Française des Nouvelles Galeries (SFNGR), “one of the most perfect department store companies which exist in France.”

With its slogan “Loyalty is our strength,” the Grands Magasins Charner boasted of being “Sales agents of the best global brands such as Oméga watches, Jaz alarm clocks, Seymour shirts, Gillier stockings, Heyraud shoes, Lesquendieu beauty products and Zeiss-Ikon cameras.”

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A view of the Grands Magasins Charner in the early 1950s after it was remodelled

However, its speciality throughout the late colonial period seems to have been hunting supplies – several advertisements of the 1920s and 1930s devote considerable space to the promotion of leather gun cases with adjustable shoulder straps, leather cartridge cases, cartridge belts and hammerless repeating rifles.The store even published its own “special catalogue of weapons and hunting supplies.”

The 1937 Guide touristique général de l’Indochine described the Grands Magasins as “the best stocked store in Indochina, with the widest choice, incomparable price and all of the facilities one would find in a Paris department store.”

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The Saigon Tax Trade Centre in the 1960s

With its central location, the roof of the building was selected in October 1925 by the port authority as the location of “a powerful siren which announced the arrival of the courriers de France.”

The Grands Magasins roof dome originally incorporated a clock tower, but some time after 1948, that was removed in order to make way for the construction of a third floor to provide additional retail space.

The Grands Magasins Charner makes a brief appearance in Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American as “the big store at the corner of the Boulevard Charner,” outside which British correspondent Thomas Fowler is invited to stand and witness the events of “Operation Bicyclette”– which conclude with a bicycle bomb explosion in the fountain pool in the middle of the Bùng Binh Sài Gòn traffic circle. This incident was featured in the first (1958) film version of The Quiet American.

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The shop’s beautifully designed main stairway (photo courtesy http://commerces-immarcescibles.blogspot.com)

In around 1960, the Grands Magasins was renamed the Saigon Tax Trade Centre (Thương Xá Tax Sài Gòn) when its owners began renting out space to individual merchants.

After Reunification, the building initially became an exhibition centre for industrial machinery, but in 1981 it was re-established as the City General Department Store (Cửa hàng Bách hóa Tổng hợp Thành phố). The building was renovated in 1995 and in October 1997 its name was changed to Saigon General Retail Company (Công ty Bán lẻ Tổng hợp Sài Gòn) by its owner, the Tổng Công ty Thương mại Sài Gòn (SATRA). However, early the following year the old name Thương Xá Tax Sài Gòn was reinstated on the façade.

Last renovated in 2003, the building retains many of its original interior features, notably its beautifully designed mosaic stairway with decorative wrought iron railings.

Since its closure in September 2014, the building has been the focus of a high-profile campaign by a local conservation group to persuade the authorities to preserve its magnificent mosaic staircase and elements of the original GMS facade design in the new tower block which will replace it.

UPDATE: In December 2014, the Hồ Chí Minh City People’s Committee approved a recommendation from the Director of Planning and Architecture that the lobby. mosaic stairway and some exterior design features of the Saigon Tax Trade Centre should be preserved and incorporated into the new building. The interior features to be preserved include: “the main lobby and staircase from the ground floor to the 1st floor and the original decorative mosaic-tiled staircase and associated decorative details, bannisters and handrails from the original building,” while the exterior features to be preserved include “the canopy extending over the sidewalk and some of the architectural contours of the original building.”

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A 1920s view of the Grands Magasins Charner

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A 1950s view of the Grands Magasins Charner

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The building was featured in The Quiet American (book and first film) – a still from the 1958 film of The Quiet American (© Figaro/United Artists)

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

Old Saigon Building of the Week – St Joseph’s Seminary, 1863

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The main St Joseph’s Seminary building of 1866

This article was published previously in Saigoneer http://saigoneer.com

One of the first Roman Catholic institutions founded by Bishop Dominique Lefèbvre following the French conquest of 1859, the rarely-visited St Joseph’s Seminary offers a unique oasis of calm in a busy city.

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The founder of St Joseph’s Seminary, Father Louis Théodore Wibaux (1820-1878)

Saigon’s first seminary for the training of Roman Catholic priests was established in around 1850 by Monsignor, later Bishop Dominique Lefèbvre of the Christian Brothers (Frères des écoles chrétiennes), next to the Thị Nghè creek at Phú Mỹ. However in July 1858, during the preliminary French campaign in Đà Nẵng, its director, Father Phaolô Lê Văn Lộc, was arrested by royal troops and beheaded on the Trường Thi examination field outside the Gia Định Citadel.

Lộc’s successor, Father Louis Théodore Wibaux (1820-1878), arrived in Saigon in January 1860. In addition to placing him in charge of the Phú Mỹ Seminary, Lefèbvre also appointed him as Provicar General of the Diocese. Once in Saigon, Wibaux is said to have “constantly busied himself training young students of the sanctuary, as he had done previously in France for nearly 15 years before devoting himself to the foreign missions.”

Two years later, during the final stages of the French conquest of Cochinchina, the old Phú Mỹ Seminary was burned to the ground, so Father Wibaux was sent out to find land on which to build a new one. Arriving at a large open field near the near the naval shipyard on boulevard de la Citadelle (Tôn Đức Thắng street), he is reported to have said: “Hie est Locus (This is the place).”

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An engraving of the St Joseph’s Seminary building of 1866

Bishop Dominique Lefèbvre subsequently decided to settle several different religious institutions on the site selected by Father Wibaux, and on 28 August 1862, the French authorities granted a 14,400m² plot of land to the Christian Brothers for construction of the new St Joseph’s Seminary and an adjacent 10,800m² plot to the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres for the construction of a Sainte-Enfance or “Holy Childhood” orphanage for local street children.

The foundation stone of the Seminary was laid in 1863 by Bishop Lefèbvre, and in 1863-1866 Father Wibaux oversaw the construction of the first Seminary building. Because “at this time the resources of the mission were not significant,” construction took several years. Measuring 45m long and 21m wide, with a wide verandah surrounding all four sides, the Seminary building was completed in 1866, “thanks to the zeal and generosity of Father Wibaux, who dedicated to this work the greater part of his personal fortune.” It was inaugurated in 1866 by Lefèbvre’s successor, Bishop Miche.

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An engraving of the St Joseph’s Seminary Chapel of 1871

In the early days of the new Seminary, a large inner hall was used for worship, but in 1867, Father Wibaux began work on a dedicated new chapel. Located immediately behind the Seminary and measuring “30m long by 10m wide, with a vault height of 10m,” the Seminary Chapel was inaugurated by Bishop Miche on 19 April 1871.

When Father Wibaux died on 7 October 1877, “leaving the seminar in a very satisfactory state of prosperity,” he was interred behind the Seminary Chapel. In 1913, a mausoleum was raised around his tomb.

At the time of its inauguration in 1866, the Seminary had just seven teachers and 60 students, but in subsequent years the intake and number of teaching staff increased steadily. By the 1920s, its activities had outgrown its facilities, so in 1928-1932, two new wings were added, permitting the Seminary to be divided into a Grand Seminaire for senior students and a Petit Seminaire for junior students.

During the Allied bombing campaign of 1943-1944, the Seminary was evacuated to temporary facilities in Lái Thiêu, Vĩnh Long and Cái Nhum. It resumed operations in mid-1946, and during the subsequent Indochina Wars the Seminary buildings escaped major damage.

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A side view of the main St Joseph’s Seminary building

After Reunification, the St Joseph’s Seminary continued to function until 1982, when it temporarily ceased operations pending reorganisation. It reopened in 1987 without the Petit Seminaire.

Today, the original 1866 Seminary building still stands at the centre of the compound. Extensively restored in the period 1998-2005 and refurbished again in 1914, it houses the main offices of the centre, a library, a small Heritage Centre (Nhà truyền thống) and an exhibition gallery.

The Heritage Centre comprises two rooms situated either side of the central corridor at the rear of the building. Here visitors will find a valuable collection of religious artefacts, including devotional statues, altar accessories (crucifixes, candlestick holders and candelabra, water and wine cruets, finger basins, bells, altar linens etc), an ornate 19th-century platform once used to carry devotional statues in street processions, antique furniture (tables, cabinets and screens) made from precious wood and featuring exquisite engraving and mother-of-pearl inlay, religious artefacts made from Biên Hòa ceramics, parallel sentences and two old church organs.

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One of two rooms which comprise the St Joseph’s Seminary Heritage Centre

Here, too, is a display of ceremonial regalia which once belonged to Archbishop Phaolô Nguyễn Văn Bình (1960–1995), including robes, pectoral cross, ring, mitre, crozier (staff) and pallium, plus books and other personal items. The Heritage Centre also contains a valuable collection of old religious books and documents, including devotional literature in Hán-Nôm and Bishop Pigneau de Behaine’s Dictionarium Anamitico-Latinum (1838), as well as printing artefacts from the Imprimerie Tan-Dinh or “Imprimerie de la Mission” at Tân Định Church (see last week’s Old Saigon Building of the Week).

On the upper floor there are two small exhibition galleries which display mainly religious art works from the personal collection of the late Father Dominique Trần Thái Hiệp (1926-1992). These include paintings and drawings by many leading southern artists from both before and after Reunification, including Lê Văn Đệ, Tạ Tỵ, Duy Thanh, Ngọc Dũng, Thái Tuấn, Nguyễn Siên, Văn Đen, Nguyễn Văn Rô, Nguyễn Anh, Nguyễn Thương, Lê Văn Bình, Tố Phượng and Tố Oanh.

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The interior of the St Joseph’s Seminary Chapel

Immediately behind the main building, across a peaceful tree-lined courtyard, lies the Seminary Chapel, the Gothic edifice inaugurated by Bishop Miche in 1871. The Chapel comprises a central vaulted nave flanked by vaulted aisles and flat-roofed side corridors. The aisles extend around the back of the altar platform as an ambulatory and their outer aisle pillars are hung with the 14 Stations of the Cross. The wooden crucifix panel on the rear wall of the altar platform is a fairly recent addition.

Immediately behind it is the tomb of the Seminary’s founder, Father Louis Théodore Wibaux, housed in the ornate mausoleum of 1913.

Getting there
Address: Trung tâm Văn hóa Công Giáo Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh – Đại Chủng viện Thánh Giuse, 6 Tôn Đức Thắng, Phường Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh
Telephone: 84 (0) 90 724 2678 (Father Nguyễn Duy, Administration, Vietnamese language only)
Opening hours: On request 8.15am-11am, 2pm-4pm daily

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Another view of the main St Joseph’s Seminary building

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The facade of the St Joseph’s Seminary Chapel

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The mausoleum of Father Louis Théodore Wibaux (1820-1878)

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The tomb of Father Louis Théodore Wibaux (1820-1878)

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

Wang Tai and the Cochinchina Opium Monopoly

L0056137 Saigon, Cochin China. Photograph by John Thomson, 1867.

This 1867 photograph by John Thomson shows the Maison Wang-Tai under construction

One of the more mysterious figures of the early French colonial period, wealthy Cantonese trader Wang Tai is remembered principally as the owner of the city’s grandest building, at a time when the Admiral-Governors of Cochinchina still lived in a very modest wooden residence. But the man usually described as a successful brick manufacturer turns out to have made his fortune from the lucrative opium trade

Little is known about the life of Cantonese trader Wang Tai, other than the fact that he was born in 1827 and arrived in Saigon-Chợ Lớn in 1858, on the eve of the French conquest.

He was clearly a man of some wealth, and by the 1860s he owned two large and successful brickmaking factories on the banks of the Lò Gốm creek in Chợ Lớn, which went under the company name Briqueterie Wang-Tai. During the late 19th century, as Dr Nguyễn Đức Hiệp showed in his 2010 article Wang-Tai là Ai? (Who is Wang-Tai), his company supplied bricks and tiles for the construction of several of Saigon’s major civic buildings, including the Cathedral (1880).

The Maison Wang-Tai

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The first Hôtel du gouverneur was a collection of wooden buildings imported in kit form from Singapore and assembled on site in 1861-1862 for Admiral-Governor Louis Adolphe Bonard (28 November 1861-23 April 1863)

Today, Wang Tai is perhaps best remembered for the large brick residence and headquarters he built for himself in 1867 right next to the Saigon River, on the site now occupied by the Hôtel des douanes (Customs Department). Known as the Maison Wang-Tai or Hôtel Wang-Tai, this building is said to have been the cause of some annoyance in the upper echelons of the colonial administration, because, despite being “the residence of a native,” it was in fact far grander than the first Admiral-Governor’s Palace – a series of three wooden buildings imported in kit form from Singapore!

In December 1869, when King Norodom of Cambodia paid his first official visit to Saigon at the invitation of the Cochinchina authorities, there were still no proper hotels in the city, so the king stayed instead in the “sumptuous apartments which had been prepared for him at the Hôtel Wang-Tai, owned by a Chinese.”

It seems that, from the outset, Wang Tai intended his headquarters to serve both for his own use and for rental to outside tenants, for by the early 1870s a number of French organisations were also renting premises within the Maison Wang-Tai. Chief of these was the Saigon Municipal Council, which, following its establishment in 1869, occupied a series of temporary homes before moving into a permanent building in 1909. The Hôtel de ville or Town Hall was based at the Maison Wang-Tai from the late 1860s until the early 1880s.

Another important colonial institution which rented premises here was the Cercle de l’Union, described in 1883 as “the rendezvous of all the colonial gentry.”

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After 1874 the Maison Wang-Tai appears in the records as the Cosmopolitan-Hôtel and Café

In January 1883, the Société de géographie de Lille Bulletin published an account of the “Famous Maison Wang-Taï,” which described the building and its occupants in detail:

“A Chinese man named Wang Tai, who is known to everyone in Saigon, built a large house with a classical portico called the Maison Wang-Tai at the angle of the Arroyo Chinois and the grand Arroyo; this place is almost the centre of Saigon. The house has two floors with verandahs and it contains the Town Hall, the residence of the Mayor, who is the best-lodged official in all of Saigon, a central police station, the secret police (a new institution created in Saigon) and the large Cercle de l’Union, which counts almost all officials and naval officers of Saigon and, in small numbers, the Marine infantry, but very few traders. That’s because the traders have their own Cercle du Commerce, which is less important than the Cercle de l’Union. Almost the entire first floor of the house facing the arroyo is occupied by the Cercle. In the evening we can see brightly lit windows; regulars of the Cercle play games or walk along the verandah smoking; this is about the only place to go in the city when the night comes and we see many Europeans here.”

By 1874, Wang Tai himself seems to have moved his office and residence out of the building, since in that year the Maison Wang-Tai appears in the records as the Cosmopolitan-Hôtel and Café, managed by one David Austin. Before the opening of the famous Hôtel de l’Univers on rue Turc in the late 1880s, the Cosmopolitan-Hôtel was the only place in Saigon where wealthy visitors could expect European-style comfort and service.

However, this did not prevent the area around the hotel from developing a rather seedy reputation. One visitor’s account of 1882 refers to Saigon’s very large number of “houses of ill-repute,” which were “all grouped immediately behind the Cosmopolitan-Hôtel, in the rue des Fleurs.” This alley still exists today, behind the Customs Department building.

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Emile Gsell’s 1880 photograph shows the Maison Wang-Tai on the Saigon riverfront

Wang Tai was clearly a figure to be reckoned with amongst the new wave of Chinese settlers encouraged by the French, and by 1880 he had become the “Chief (Bang trưởng) of the Cantonese congrégation.” While occupying this post, he argued vociferously on behalf of Chinese interests, as indicated by an account of a successful request he brought before the Colonial Council in 1883 to abolish the amount of land tax levied on “five Chinese pagodas in Cholon belonging to various congregations in the city,” arguing that “Indian mosques and pagodas already enjoy that favour in Cochinchina.”

Opium king

A closer look at the colonial records reveals that Wang Tai’s fortune was made not from his brick and tile making factories, but rather from his role as chief supplier and processor of raw opium for the Cochinchina government.

As early as 1862, the French authorities set up an opium franchise, with the aim of maximising revenue and turning their new colony into a going concern. At the outset, raw opium was imported from British India via various merchant houses and processed in a network of small processing factories in Chợ Lớn, before being sold to consumers through a network of licensed opium dens.

However, by the mid 1860s, Wang Tai had taken over both the shipping and processing of opium, making himself a small fortune in the process. At the height of its drug shipping and processing activities in 1881, the so-called Marché Wangtaï “shipped 864,000 taëls of opium and sold it at 2 cents per taël to the government,” before processing the resin into smokable chandoo in its own network of factories.

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The Manufacture d’Opium at 74 rue Nationale (now Hai Bà Trưng street) Saigon, which opened in 1881

In 1881, realising that Wang Tai was getting rich at its expense, the French administration moved to break his drug monopoly. Shipping of raw opium was opened to competitive tender and a new factory named the Manufacture d’Opium was opened at 74 rue Nationale (now Hai Bà Trưng street) in Saigon to process the resin.

In his De Toulon au Tonkin (itinéraire d’un transport) of April 1885, Dr Bernard describes how “The opium trade was formerly leased by the State to a rich Chinese merchant named Wang-Tai, who had a monopoly in Cochinchina and took for himself an annual profit of several million. Thankfully, the French administration has since changed its policy and the opium trade has been brought under state control. This was a successful reform from a social and political point of view, and especially where the financial report was concerned. This state opium monopoly has indeed given us last year a very respectable income of 8.6 million francs!”

After 1881, Wang Tai continued to ship and process opium on behalf of the Cochinchina authorities, though now simply as one of many trading houses which competed with each other for the work. In 1885, during one tendering exercise, a member of the Colonial Council commented: “The Administration may judge from the competitors, and I know one – he has made outstanding reports to the Governor and to the Director of Customs and Excise about opium, and would certainly quote more cheaply than Mr Wang Tai; although I should add that the Annamites [Vietnamese] really appreciate the opium produced by Mr Wang Tai.” In 1887, Wang Tai still appears in the Annuaire de la Cochinchine française as an opium producer (M Wang-tai père, Fabricant d’opium, rue Catinat).

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In 1882 the French authorities purchased the Maison Wang-Tai to house its Directorate of Customs and Excise (Direction des Douanes et Régies)

After he lost the Cochinchina opium monopoly, the records tell us less about Wang Tai’s involvement in the opium trade and more about his other businesses. By 1886, according to the Annuaire de l’Indo-Chine française, in addition to his two brick factories, Wang Tai owned a rice processing plant on the Lò Gốm creek and had an import-export company based on quai Gaudot (Hải Thượng Lãn Ông street) in Chợ Lớn. He also maintained a Saigon trading office, Wang-taï père el fils, on boulevard Charner.

It was perhaps somewhat ironic that in 1882 the French authorities decided to purchase Wang Tai’s former headquarters, the Maison Wang-Tai, to house its Directorate of Customs and Excise (Direction des Douanes et Régies), the government agency which controlled the lucrative French opium franchise.

In 1882 Wang Tai sold the building to the government for the sum of 200,000 Francs, and in subsequent years the Directorate of Customs and Excise relocated there, along with the Commercial Port Telegraphic Office. In 1885, one commentator noted that “the Maison Wang-Tai, an immense construction built by a rich Chinese, now belongs to the Customs and Excise Administration, which has established its offices there.”

However, it seems that the Maison Wang-Tai was not big enough for the Directorate of Customs and Excise, for by 1887, at an additional cost of 100,000 Francs, it had been rebuilt to a design by Alfred Foulhoux as the Hôtel des douanes (Customs Department), the building which still stands today.

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By 1887 the Maison Wang-Tai had been rebuilt to a design by Alfred Foulhoux as the Hôtel des douanes (Customs Department)

The decoration of this new building reflected its main source of income and perhaps also paid tribute to its origins as the former home of the government’s chief drug supplier: writer, journalist and Indochina specialist Jules Boissière (1863-1897) pointed out that the badges between the windows included opium poppies, by the 1880s one of the most important revenue streams for the Cochinchina government.

Wang Tai’s later years

In November 1888, the Tablettes coloniales: organe des possessions françaises described a grand celebration held that month “to celebrate the 61st anniversary of the birth and the 30th year of residence in Saigon of a Chinese merchant named Wang-Tai.” Organised by “the son of Wang-Tai and family, his countrymen and his friends” and featuring “illuminations, fireworks and theatrical performances,” it was attended by “French and Europeans from Saigon, Cholon and the interior… indeed, the entire European colony responded to this gracious call.” It went on: “Wang-Tai is one of the most esteemed Chinese notables of Saigon; he has given not only his countrymen, but also the French administration and settlers, great service. It is apt that we have recompensed him by participating in this peaceful celebration of which he has been the object.”

The Saïgon Républicain newspaper of 10 November 1888 gave a more detailed account of this event, entitled “An anniversary:”

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Festivities on boulevard Charner

“The sons of Monsieur Wangtai – Wangtai Suon, mandarin; Wangtai Foo, trader in Cambodia; Wangtai Suu, trader in Saigon; Wangtai Pio and Wangtai Xuong, students in China; Wangtai Khai (Cambodia); and his other sons, Wangtai Sing and Wangtai Thang, celebrated with dignity the 61st anniversary and the 30th year in Cochinchina of their father, a trader in Saigon, having invited all of the colony to participate last Saturday in a soirée organised to that effect.
An immense marquee decorated outside and inside with tricolour flags, beautiful curtains and draperies in silk embroidered with gold Chinese letters, calligraphic art and fantastic dragons, was built on boulevard Charner. For eight days, gifts flowed to our fellow citizen Wangtai, because he is, as we know, a naturalised Frenchman – and the gifts came not only from Saigon and Cholon, but also from Cambodia, Siam, and even from deep in China. They consisted of pieces of silk, furniture inlaid with mother of pearl, animal reproductions, artistically crumpled fabrics, jewelry and also – a touching Chinese custom – bank notes.
From 9pm until 1am the next morning, visitors came here in droves! Military music lent its support to this solemnity. We were received by Wangtai, who looked like the elder brother of his sons. This patriarch of the Yellow River was surrounded by his children and grandchildren, in full ceremonial dress of richly embroidered black silk. The youngest of his offspring knelt before the guests and made the mandatory kowtow. We French are not alone in having invented honest civility!
In the huge room, many tables were dressed. We were pleased at the valiant way in which all these great things had so kindly been offered. The most charming women of Saigon had also provided an excellent champagne in honour of the 61 year-old Wangtai. Lucky for Wangtai!
At about nine o’clock, the Governor General and Madame Richaud, accompanied by Captain Dol, made an appearance for a few moments. The Saigon Républicain newspaper wishes you health and happiness, citizen Wangtai!”

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Another image of Alfred Foulhoux’s Hôtel des douanes (Customs Department)

In 1889, Wang Tai, now also the recipient of a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, built himself a large house for his retirement on the quai de l’Arroyo-Chinois (route coloniale no 3).

Unfortunately, his dignified retirement didn’t last long. In 1891 Wang Tai’s name was dragged through the mud when the Avenir du Tonkin and Indépendance Tonkinoise newspapers revealed a secret deal between him and Monsieur Coqui, Director of Customs and Excise for Annam and Tonkin, whereby the authorities had agreed to turn a blind eye to smuggling in return for “money and gifts” from the veteran Chinese trader.

While the scandal which followed clearly disgraced Wang Tai himself, it seems to have done little to dent the success of his family’s other businesses. The Briqueteries Wang-Tai continued to operate successfully and were singled out for praise as an example of Cochinchina industry in A Challamel’s 1910 book, Histoire de la Cochinchine française: des origines à 1883.

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Workers queueing outside the Manufacture d’opium in the late 19th century

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A worker cutting balls of opium resin

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Writer, journalist and Indochina specialist Jules Boissière (1863-1897) pointed out that the fenestration decoration on Foulhoux’s Customs House (the rebuilt Maison Wang-Tai) included opium poppies

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

 

Saigon Through the Eyes of Early Travellers – Louise Bourbonnaud in 1888, Part 5

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During her last few days in Saigon, Louise Bourbonnaud set out on an excursion to Thủ Đức

In mid 1888, wealthy French widow Louise Bourbonnaud set off alone on an extended voyage of discovery which took in India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Singapore, Cochinchina, China and Japan. She spent over a week in Saigon and her 1892 book Les Indes et l’Extrême Orient, impressions de voyage d’une parisienne provides us with a fascinating,  if somewhat condescending, account of late 19th century colonial life. This is the fifth and final instalment from her book, translated into English.

To read part 1 of this serialisation click here.

To read part 2 of this serialisation click here

To read part 3 of this serialisation click here

To read part 4 of this serialisation click here

Friday 31 August 1888

Today I’ll go on a serious excursion to a place called Thu-Duc, or île des Cocotiers (Coconut palm island). This is no small matter, because there is a river to cross – without a bridge, of course!

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Malabar and pousse-pousse drivers wait for customers

The first challenge is to find a driver who will condescend to take me. I have such a reputation here, they know me so well for my bravery and endurance to fatigue that I seem to frighten even the bravest driver away. But, thanks to the owner of the hotel, I finally find a carriage and, after a long discussion, I agree to pay the driver 2 piastres for the trip. The river crossing will be paid for separately and will be my own responsibility, of course; that is part of the expenses of my expedition!

The journey gets under way and we soon arrive at the edge of the Cambodia river that must be crossed. There is no bridge, I repeat, between its banks, and the waters run furious and thundering. From time to time, large trees float by that may have come from very far upstream; they roll over, extending their branches towards the sky like drowning men calling for help. And then I discover that we will cross this river on a meagre raft whose poor boards creak and groan and constantly seem to be in danger of coming apart from each other!

My coachman, with typical oriental fatalism, does not seem too worried by the situation. After he has parked his carriage, he takes off the few clothes he was wearing, and then – as nude as a worm and not looking the best for it, I assure you – he disconnects his horse and, with the help of a passer-by, pushes the carriage onto the raft. Finally, he leads his horse and me onto the raft – which then leaves the safety of the riverbank, carrying Madame Bourbonnaud and her fortune!

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The river at Thủ Đức

The crossing is accomplished without incident and we soon land on the île des Cocotiers. This perilous passage reminds me a little of crossing the rivers in America.

The landscape is very pretty; after two minutes walking among the trees, we come to a charming fountain where water gurgles into a pool. I am told that this is where French people come to bathe on Sundays. Not far away, on the road, is a café-restaurant. Today there are no Europeans on this side of the river, only local people. All of them – men, women and children – chew betel, which gives them a very nasty mouth.

As I bravely walk alone through the Annamite village, I hear a terrible clap of thunder. Lightning streaks the sky on all sides and heavy rain begins to soak me from head to toe.

I immediately remember that I must get out from under the trees, because they attract lightning. The sky is invisible, obscured by the heavy rain which falls in sheets, making it impossible to see beyond a radius of a few metres. What a horrible time! I’m in big trouble!

I decide that I must get out of here quickly and take the path which leads back to where my carriage is parked. The path is narrow and at one point it descends into a basin which has already filled with water. Rolling up my dress and petticoat, I wade courageously through it; as for the boots below, it’s no longer worth worrying about, because the water is now up to my knees!

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A waiting Malabar

To make matters worse, the tall grass on either side of the path attaches itself to my clothes and seems to want to prevent my passage. A thousand small spikes scratch my legs; my dress and my petticoat is filled with wet foliage; it will take me at least a day to remove it all!

Another path crosses the one that we have taken, my Annamite driver and I; this one is even more flooded than the first and by now it is awash with muddy waves. An old piece of board, worm-eaten and slippery, will serve us as a bridge; the driver holds out his hand and helps me step onto it. Fortunately I have sailor’s feet and I’m soon on the other side of the inundation. There’s the carriage! I slip inside and await the end of the thunderstorm. I don’t think there are many women who have the courage to do what I did back there, to expose myself alone in the middle of this wild country; I might well not have made it back!

I’m safe at last, but in what condition! Soaked to the bone, with not a dry thread on me. After the storm has subsided, we re-cross the river without incident and return to Saigon, where I am happy finally to change my clothes back at the hotel. It’s stopped raining now, but the weather is overcast and the sun is nowhere to be seen.

On the return journey, I pass some zébus, small humpback cattle that local people lead by a rope passed through the nose of the animal. The calves follow their mothers, which they suckle from behind.

48 Rigault de Genouilly and Chambre de commerce

Place Rigault de Genouilly (Mê Linh square) and the Chambre de commerce building

Once I’ve changed, I feel more at ease and I’m ready to start again; fatigue and danger cannot scare me. The good rain this morning is cause for rejoicing amongst the local population, because there will be no shortage of water in the rice fields and this is a good omen for the future harvest. At times of drought, Chinese and Annamite make processions in the streets to beg the heavens for water.

Every day at noon, a cannon sounds – it’s like the one near the Eiffel Tower – and everyone can set their watch by the time which has thus been officially given.

In the garden, not far from the hotel [modern Mê Linh square], opposite the statue of Admiral Rigault de Genouilly, is a high pyramid in memory of Mr Navaillé, a prominent citizen who did much for the development of trade in Saigon and the colony. The cost of this monument was met by subscription.

Many Europeans who come here are naturally curious to know more about indigenous customs. Some try to chew betel and others to smoke opium; the latter is very dangerous and can produce serious disturbances to the health of the one who uses it immoderately. Moreover, Chinese and Annamite only smoke opium in very small quantities: a little chandoo is picked up on the end of a knitting needle and placed in the bowl of the pipe.

FUMEURS D'OPIUM

Chinese opium smokers

After the smoker has taken a puff or two, the pipe is finished. He who succombs to opium addiction is a lost man, because he is fatally driven to continue smoking and death is not slow to arrive; it should be noted, however, that the Chinese have longer resistance to intoxication.

There is also another kind of pipe, which takes the form of a box containing water, through which the smoke passes before reaching the smoker’s mouth; it is said that this system has the effect of making the smoke less harmful to the smoker’s health.

At that moment, another Chinese woman passes beneath my window; despite the fact that her costume is identical to that of a man, I’m sure it’s a woman, because from her shape I guess that it will not be long before she gives birth!

When one wants to speak a Chinese or Annamite word, one must be very careful to emphasis the first syllable and pronounce each syllable separately: thus, Annam is pronounced: “An-nam;” and Pholong is pronounced “Pho-long.”

Saturday 1 September 1888

Hotel de l'Univers

During her visit, Louise Bourbonnaud stayed at the Hôtel de l’Univers

Today it pours with rain all day; at first, I don’t bother to get dressed but stay in my room to write. What a strange life they lead, here in the colonies! You spend your time dressing and undressing; me, I could never get used to the life here, especially since the colons very rarely walk anywhere; it seems that they can’t go two steps without taking a carriage. That would be difficult for me, I need the exercise! I need to walk, give me movement!

And in particular, I could never become accustomed to the siesta.

Get up early, I am told, and rest during the heat of the day; the sun here is very dangerous and you risk a lot if you try to brave it.

This counsel can be good, I reply, but it is still not fully light by 7am and at 5pm night begins to fall. Anyway, I cannot sleep in the daytime. With so little time to visit Cochinchina, if I spend my days sleeping, I will leave without having seen anything!

No, here the colons certainly lead a lazy life, and it could very well be shaken up a bit; not least the fact that the clothes they wear could be lighter and more suited to the climate.

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Boulevard Charner (Nguyễn Huệ boulevard) in Saigon

Later, I hear a knock at my door; It’s Mr R, a merchant in the colony who also does business in Cambodia and whom I had the pleasure of meeting at Mr de Blainville’s house. He has come to visit me and I invite him up to join me on my verandah. For nearly two hours, we talk in a friendly way about this and that, but mostly about the manners and customs of this country. Mr R knows a lot on this subject, as he has lived here for some time.

Before lunch, I go for a walk in town and buy a Chinese sword decorated with coins; then, in the shop of another merchant, I buy two beautiful silk scarves, with birds and. flowers embroidered on a red background. I also purchase a Chinese doll for little Martha de Blainville. I will give her this present when I leave Saigon; I also want to give to her sister, Miss Adele de Blainville, the model carriage that I bought in Singapore on my way here; I’ll buy another one on my return journey to France.

I stop to talk to the owner of the hotel, who tells me that he plans to retire in a few years, but not before having saved enough money to live comfortably on his pension. He wants to return to Paris, but he no longer wants to be involved in business there. He says that the businessmen of Paris are a bunch of rascals who would not fail to exploit him and gobble up the little money that he has earned in the colonies!

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Rue Paul Blanchy (Hai Bà Trưng street) in Saigon

It is 4pm; today I want to go to bid farewell to Mr de Blainville, because tomorrow is Sunday and I’m afraid that none of my honourable friends will be at home as they will probably be out enjoying an excursion; I would also like to offer my small gifts to the young ladies.

At the moment I leave the hotel, I hear the joyous fanfares of a military band resounding through the streets. Today a ship has arrived bringing French troops; some of them will remain here, while the rest will be sent to Tonkin.

The rain begins to fall – again! This is decidedly too much! Much too much! And even if it means that the rice fields will fill with water, it is not pleasant for me. I get out of my carriage at the residence of Mr de Blainville, who comes out to meet me with his whole family. I say goodbye to these caring friends who have welcomed me so kindly and – alas! – I will never see them again! I learn later that almost the entire family fell victim to the climate of the colony.

I myself feel a little tired, and it is now time for a change of scenery, so I plan to do a rapid tour of China and Japan.

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Another Malabar driver waits for customers

Taking leave of my friends, after a visit which is naturally prolonged, I cannot find my carriage at the door! The driver, probably tired of waiting in the rain, went to take cover, and I am forced to find another carriage to take me back to the hotel.

After dinner, Mr R meets me and accompanies me on another trip to Cholon, or Cho- lon as the local people say, separating the two syllables. I do not think that it is very prudent for a woman to venture alone on that side of town after dark, but thanks to the kindness of my compatriot, I can enjoy a spectacle worth seeing.

Cholon, viewed in the evening, offers a different appearance than it does during the daytime. The animation is the same, even greater perhaps; all the vendors display their goods on counters outside their shops, or on stalls outside their doors, according to the nature of the objects offered for sale. Everything is illuminated by lanterns of strange shapes and the most varied colours; it is magical and charming, especially when viewed from afar.

We enter the Annamite Theatre. A dozen performers are there, sitting on stools, whining, crying, screaming; one cannot distinguish any song amongst the horrible noise they make; their bodies are dripping with oil, grease, soot and other things. For costumes, they have only rags, and as for the play being presented, it is not possible to grasp anything. Around 50 local spectators are sitting in a room which is sparingly lit by a few meagre lanterns.

Annamite Theatre Cholon

The Annamite Theatre in Cholon

It’s not beautiful, but when you travel, you have to see and learn about everything, if you want to be able to tell people about it later.

Afterwards, for variety, we go to the Chinese Theatre.

What a good time we have there! This place is much better, even though it looks nothing – even from afar – like the Opéra or the Comédie-Française; but with its exotic nature, it is truly not too bad.

Firstly, we pay nothing to enter, which is charming isn’t it? It seems that wealthy Chinese people maintain this theatre at their own expense, and pay courtesy to Europeans by offering them free admission. I do not believe that the Parisian theatres are similarly kind to the Chinese!

We take our places in the gallery on the first floor, seated on simple wooden benches, not padded at all. The pit extends below us; about 300 Chinese flock there, some bare-chested, others a little more dressed; many are smoking opium.

The orchestra is located behind the actors. The musicians are few, but they make a lot of noise, which compensates.

There is no curtain; the actors are separated from the spectators by an opening that brings to mind that of the puppet theatre.

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The Chinese Theatre in Cholon

The costumes are very rich, some embroidered with gold and silver, and apparently worth a great deal of money. I saw one costume which they told me was worth around 6,000 francs; at least, that’s the price we’d pay for it in Paris.

As for the subject of the piece, it is quite difficult to take in when you don’t understand a word of the dialogue. However, this is not like the Annamite theatre: it features a rather expressive pantomime, which lasts for some time, by the way. As always, the female roles are played by men wearing female costumes.

When I first enter the auditorium, I see two characters on the stage: The seated one is dressed in Chinese style, wears a white wig and a sort of diadem on his head and carries a spear in his hand. Next to him stands a man wearing a huge hat with several cornets gaudily bedecked with gold and silver trimmings. I get the impression that the second scolds the first; then they seem to agree and sing a song together: a love duet probably, or maybe something else. Thereupon arrive two masked individuals, who appear angry at the first two. The action then continues for I do not know how long, all the while not seeming much more explicit.

When one of the players has finished, he rests behind the small gallery where the musicians are located and waits there, without evading the eyes of the audience, until it is time for him to go back on stage. This perceived invisibility of characters who are momentarily away from the action shows us that the Chinese do not have the same ideas as us.

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A Chinese opera performer in Cholon

I take away from my evening in the theatres of Cholon the best memories, for which I am indebted to my friendly and accommodating host.

When we begin our journey back to Saigon, it seems that the moon has not yet risen, or perhaps it is just very overcast. Leaving the brightly-lit streets of Cholon, we suddenly find ourselves in pitch darkness. The driver can no longer see the road and a bit further on, the horse, carriage and passengers almost take an accidental dip in the arroyo [the Bến Nghé creek]. Fortunately we stop, just in time!

Cholon is like a little Venice….there are canals and waterways that flow in every direction. I was once told that that if you come by boat from the sea without a pilot, you could very well not even find Saigon and, travelling from arroyo to arroyo, return to the sea without ever seeing the city; I have no difficulty in believing it!

I must confess that, after that incident, I keep a close eye on the driver to check our progress. Mr R, to whom I extend my thanks for treating me to a lovely evening, takes leave of me by praising the unflinching courage I showed earlier in the face of an involuntary bath.

Sunday 2 September 1888

This morning I’m in a bookstore, where I buy some newspapers, and from there I head to the Post Office. But it ‘s 9am and the Post Office is closed. Also closed, the Cathedral! I wait for two hours, reading my newspaper, but to no avail! The church does not open: Ite missa est! And I have nowhere else to go.

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Saigon Cathedral in the 1880s

Strange, it seems to me that last Sunday I didn’t arrive any earlier. Anyway, I don’t waste any more time thinking about it, and begin to walk towards the Cercle des Officiers [now the District 1 People’s Committee building]. Suddenly, at full speed, a light carriage arrives, driven by an officer who greets me graciously. At first I think that he may have mistaken me for someone else, but not at all; the horses stop.

“Madame Bourbonnaud! Ah! what a happy coincidence!”

I turn around, surprised. “Dr Maheau! How can you be here?

I am surprised to recognise one of the most amiable army doctors who accompanied me two years ago on a journey in Mexico. I notice on his chest a red ribbon that was not there during our last meeting and I warmly congratulate the happy doctor on this well-deserved distinction.

“How I regret, my dear Madame, not having known of your presence here! I would have come to see you earlier. But, with your permission, I intend to make up for that!”

“Sadly, there won’t be time for that. I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“For Tonkin?”

Cercle des officiers à Saïgon

The Cercle des officiers

“No, but I didn’t want to come to Saigon without also making a trip to China and Japan. I simply wish to be able to say that I saw the Middle Kingdom and the Empire of the Rising Sun, because my intention is not to stay long in these parts.”

Dr Maheau is in a hurry and we take our leave of each other, though not without cordially and repeatedly shaking hands. It’s funny, all the same, to meet acquaintances so far from one’s home country! It is true that in the colonies this is not uncommon, especially when, like me, you have already travelled so much.

On returning to the hotel, I feel ill at ease. Has the heat and humidity, maintained by the continuous rain, finally taken its toll on my courage and resistance to fatigue? It is perhaps inevitable that the new environment would eventually leave me feeling a little disorientated. Perhaps the good sea air on the next leg of my voyage will do me good. After careful reflection, I decide not to take my daily bath. It would be imprudent to do so, and in these lands, imprudence can be costly!

But I have great difficulty staying in one place. I need activity! So this afternoon I go once again by Malabar to hear “la musique.”

SAIGON - PLACE DE LA CATHEDRALE - SORTIE DE LA MESSE ii

Colons dressed in their Sunday best

The society in attendance is the same as it was last Sunday. The crowd in full dress arrives in carriages or on foot around our little troopers, who play the most charming pieces from their repertoire. What a difference, between these harmonious chords and the horrible cacophony I heard yesterday evening at the native theatres of Cholon!

The ship which will convey me has arrived. I only have a few more hours to spend in our beautiful colony, because on my way back I do not intend to come ashore here. I will return non-stop from Yokohama to Marseille.

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

Saigon’s Favourite Churches – Tan Dinh Church

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The sanctuary of Tân Định Church features an elaborately-decorated Italian high altar of 1929

This article was published previously in Saigoneer http://saigoneer.com

You just have to mention the “pink church” and everyone knows which one you mean. But few are aware that the building in question – Tân Định Church – is one of Saigon’s oldest and most important Roman Catholic institutions.

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While no image of the original church survives, this drawing shows the rebuilt church of 1896-1898, before the front tower was added

The history of Tân Định Church may be traced back to 1874, when a Catholic mission was set up here under Father Donatien Éveillard (1835-1883). It was Éveillard who supervised the construction of the first church, which cost 15,000 piastres (38,000 Francs) and was inaugurated in December 1876.

Éveillard also invited the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres to set up an orphanage and boarding school next to the church. This Sainte Enfance de Tan-Dinh, or École de Tan-Dinh, opened in 1877 and by the early 1880s it had around 300 children.

Perhaps Éveillard’s greatest achievement was the establishment at Tân Định of a religious publishing house known as the Imprimerie de la Mission, where he trained disadvantaged children from the Sainte Enfance de Tan-Dinh for the publishing trade.

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The interior of Tân Định Church after the reconstruction of 1928-1929

A much-loved figure in the local community, Éveillard died in 1883 and was buried beneath the nave of the church, where his tombstone may still be seen today.

By the early 1890s, the original church and school buildings were no longer fit for purpose, so Éveillard’s successor, Father Louis-Eugène Louvet (1838-1900), organised a lottery to raise funds to rebuild them. Much of the present Tân Định Church dates from 1896-1898, when this reconstruction was carried out at a cost of 8,600 piastres (22,000 Francs).

The adjacent school buildings were also rebuilt during this period and a new École des Sourds-Muets de Tan-Dinh (school for deaf and mute children) was opened within the Sainte Enfance de Tan-Dinh. By 1908, the Sainte Enfance had a staffing complement of four French and 10 Vietnamese nuns.

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A front view of Tân Định Church after the reconstruction of 1928-1929

Designed in Romanesque style with Gothic and Renaissance elements, Tân Định Church comprises a nave with a tall barrel-vaulted roof (today hidden by a false ceiling), separated by arcades from side aisles and outer corridors. The design also incorporates a triforium or shallow-arched upper gallery and features two apsidal chapels which extrude from either side of the nave, close to the entrance. The one to your right as you enter the church is dedicated to Mary and Joseph, while the one to your left is dedicated to St Theresa. The Saint statues and the 14 Stations of the Cross which currently adorn the outer side aisle pillars date from the 1890s.

It was Louvet who appointed a missionary named Jean-François-Marie Génibrel (1851-1914) to run the Imprimerie de la Mission. In subsequent years, alongside religious works, Génibrel published a remarkable series of scholarly publications, including the Manuel de conversation Annamite-Français (1893), the Vocabulaire Français-Annamite (1898), the Vocabulaire Annamite-Français (1906) and the ground-breaking Dictionnaire Annamite-Français (1898), which took Génibrel 14 years of painstaking research. Génibrel also started working on a Dictionnaire Français-Annamite but never completed it.

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A rear view of Tân Định Church after the reconstruction of 1928-1929

The publishing house at Tân Định Church continued in operation until 1951. By special request, several published works and some old printing tools from the Imprimerie de la Mission may still be viewed today in the St Joseph’s Seminary museum at 6 Tôn Đức Thắng.

Tân Định Church underwent further reconstruction in 1928-1929, commissioned by Father Jean-Baptiste Nguyễn Bá Tòng (1868-1949), who later famously became Indochina’s first Vietnamese bishop, responsible for the diocese of Phát Diệm.

During this period, the 52.62m, six-bell octagonal tower and entrance vestibule was added to the front of the building and a false ceiling was created above the nave.

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The rear nave of Tân Định Church today

A single-storey “U”-shaped rear extension was also installed at the rear of the nave, in order to provide new vestry space and to create large open seating wings on either side of the altar platform.

While the 1928-1929 reconstruction was under way, wealthy French parishioner François Haasz, Chief Mechanic at the Maison Larue, and his Vietnamese wife Anne Tống Thị Mực paid for the installation of the church’s richly-decorated Italian marble high altar and side altars, which today rank among the most outstanding decorative features of any church in Saigon.

In 1949, the structural pillars in the nave were strengthened and in 1957 the church was refurbished and repainted in the memorable pink colour (salmon pink on the outside, strawberries and cream on the inside!) which it has sported ever since. Since that time the church has undergone major refurbishment on several occasions.

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A rear view of Tân Định Church today

The former Sainte Enfance de Tan-Dinh, next to the church, is still partially used by the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres, but most of the complex now houses the Hai Bà Trưng High School at 295 Hai Bà Trưng street.

Getting there:
Address: Nhà thờ Tân Định, 289 Hai Bà Trưng, Phường 8, Quận 3, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh
Telephone: 84 (0) 8 3829 0093
E-mail: vovananh@hcm.fpt.vn
Opening hours: By permission of Father Võ Văn Ánh, from 8am-11am, 2pm-4.30pm Tue-Sat

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The church’s founder Father Donatien Éveillard (1835-1883) was buried beneath the nave

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Detail from the church’s richly-decorated Italian marble high altar, paid for by wealthy French parishioner François Haasz and his Vietnamese wife Anne Tống Thị Mực

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More detail from the church’s richly-decorated Italian marble high altar, paid for by wealthy French parishioner François Haasz and his Vietnamese wife Anne Tống Thị Mực

You may also be interested to read these articles:

Saigon’s Favourite Churches – Huyen Sy Church
Saigon’s Favourite Churches – Hanh Thong Tay Church
Saigon’s Lost Protestant Chapel

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

Saigon Through the Eyes of Early Travellers – Louise Bourbonnaud in 1888, Part 4

Malabar 2

In mid 1888, wealthy French widow Louise Bourbonnaud set off alone on an extended voyage of discovery which took in India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Singapore, Cochinchina, China and Japan. She spent over a week in Saigon and her 1892 book Les Indes et l’Extrême Orient, impressions de voyage d’une parisienne provides us with a fascinating,  if somewhat condescending, account of late 19th century colonial life. This is the fourth of a series of instalments from her book, translated into English.

To read part 1 of this serialisation click here.

To read part 2 of this serialisation click here

To read part 3 of this serialisation click here

Wednesday 29 August 1888

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Louise Bourbonnaud

Yesterday evening, on returning home, I found a letter from the police station lying on my table. I was a little surprised at first, and while wondering what I may have to reproach myself about, I opened the letter and read:

Madame,
I have the honour to be responsible for civilian population record keeping. Kindly complete the enclosed information sheet.
For the Commissioner:
Brigadier-Secretary,
Signed: X…

I fill in the sheet: Full name, date and place of birth, address, etc. I haven’t forgotten my skills as a member of the Geographical Society, the Society for Aid to the War Wounded, the Royal Academy of Ireland, etc, etc!

This morning, I send back the sheet with my felicitations to the Commissioner. This duty done, I barely have time for lunch before going outside to call a Malabar. A driver passes and I signal him to stop. As I’m getting in, he says:

“Ah! It’s you, the lady for whom the journeys are never long enough! I’m sorry, but I can’t take you. My comrades have warned me about you. No, no! I can’t!

Manufacture de l'Opium C i

The Manufacture d’Opium de Saïgon at 74 rue Paul Blanchy (Hai Bà Trưng street)

We finally agree, however, and for a piastre, I’ll be taken around for two hours; but it is with great difficulty that I get this result!

Passing the dock and then heading north through Saigon, I read the sign on a large facility: “Manufacture d’opium.” This is where they process the drug which the poor Chinese consume so much of, and which is so important to the colonial budget.

Passing through an Annamite village a little further on, I see an old woman on her doorstep selling a coffin. No doubt waiting until the next person in the village dies. One should not be surprised to see that here, because the coffin is furniture that is sold everywhere, both by individuals and larger companies.

We pass some more buffalo; they are huge, they look like elephants and even share their colour. While they don’t have the tusks of the pachyderm, they have horns and these can be at least as dangerous.

There are rice fields on this side of the city: to be good rice, it must be immersed completely in water; rice raised on dry land is worthless.

Prisonniers et miliciens

Prisoners and militia, Cochinchine

We pass a team of prisoners working on the road; they are at least 60 of them, led by some guards armed with cudgels which are used to chastise the lazier ones or those who try to escape.

These prisoners wear short pants, they have a small jacket and on their heads a small Japanese-style hat. They must work even during siesta time, and this must be especially hard for them. The government of the colony takes advantage of its prison labour, and that is only fair, because everything this world is so expensive.

Returning from my excursion, I pass the offices of the Messageries maritimes, but they are closed: its employees worked on Sunday to service the arrival of the ship, so they were given leave today.

When you want to talk to local people, it pays not to speak in long sentences or to use figures of speech, as they would certainly not understand. You have to go straight to the point, using the least words possible: “I not want… I not go there… it bad… it good.” If what you say is too complicated, there is a risk that the listener will answer yes or no without understanding the question that has been asked.

Hotel de l'Univers

Louise Bourbonnaud stayed at the Hôtel de l’Univers

Tonight I will have dinner at the home of Mr de Blainville, so I return to the hotel to get ready. In the hall, I stop for a moment to read the latest bulletin from the news agency Havas, which is displayed on a special table. This is a nice idea, those who want to keep abreast of events can do without buying newspapers, which, as I have already said, are quite expensive here.

On my arrival at the residence of my gracious hosts, the eldest son of Mr de Blainville scarcely gives me time to take off my hat before leading me into the garden to show me his horses and carriages, and the beautiful flowerbeds around the house. Here may be found all the beautiful plants which in our northern climes can only live in greenhouses; they are full of vigour, tapping into the fertile soil and thriving here as they would never do back home.

Going back to the first floor, I find the whole family assembled under the verandah – here we pronounce it verande – that is to say the large colonnaded balcony that surrounds the house. Ah! What excellent conversation we make in the cool of the evening, gently lounging in wicker chairs, with no other occupation than to wave our fans! Tonight we talk about the army, and during the conversation, I recount my first impressions of meeting the Annamese riflemen.

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A senior colonial administrator’s residence in Saigon

When I get back to Paris, I say, I will not fail to speak of these brave little soldiers, who have good French officers and NCOs to lead them into battle, if necessary. Cochinchina is a beautiful colony, which not only stands on its own, but also generates 20 million Francs each year for France, not to mention the millions it pays to Tonkin. Few people know about this in France, where some newspapers are trying to convince their readers that the colonies are a burden to us. But here I am positioned better than anyone to know the truth.

At 5pm we hear a loud drum roll: this is the signal for the close of the offices. At the same time, a storm occurs and the rain begins to fall with fury, crackling the leaves on the trees that here, on the verandah, we can touch with our hands.

One of the young men brings me a gorgeous rose that I pin on my blouse, and I resolve to keep as a souvenir. Then Mr de Blainville offers me his arm and conducts me into the dining room, where the table is set with the very best china, crystal and silverware, with a basket of flowers in the middle. Nothing is missing. It’s like a wedding feast!

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Étienne Richaud, who, after being appointed Résident général in Annam and Tonkin, succeeded Ernest Constans in April 1888 to become the second Governor General of Indochina

Dinner is served by 12 waiters, while half a dozen more stand behind the guests serving the drinks. On the table is the menu, which I assure you, leaves nothing to be desired; the meal is exquisite and I find the asparagus particularly delicious; I see that our French vegetables can grow well here, if they are properly cared for. As a dessert they served a bombe, a nice touch by my hosts who know that on board the Ava, I discovered my weakness for ice cream.

During dessert, the Résident Général, Mr Richaud, enters the room. Everyone rises and Mr de Blainville does me the honour of introducing me to his boss, whose reception is very courteous. As a tourist I’m a little excited, I confess, to be visiting friends in the presence of the highest authority of the colony, the representative of my dear France, this famous “captain-six gallons” who I saw receive the homage of the entire population! But Mr Richaud is a man of extreme affability and simplicity and the high functionary in him quickly disappears to make way for the man of the world. He wants to talk to Mr de Blainville and leaves with him for a trip in a carriage.

Meanwhile, the ladies go to the salon to talk. A cat is lying on the sofa where I go to sit. Its appearance is very funny: its ears are those of a dog and it has no tail! It seems that this is a special breed of cats found in Cochinchina. The animal is not wild and willingly allows us to stroke it.

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A carriage waits outside a colonial administrator’s residence

One of Mr de Blainville’s daughters has an excellent knowledge of star charts and astrology. She offers to draw up our horoscopes; although we all profess to scepticism, don’t we feel the least bit curious about what the future holds for us? On one hand, we’re convinced that the fortune teller is a charlatan, but on the other, we still shudder when we are told in a serious voice the fate which awaits us!

Each of us has a go. When my turn comes, she predicts happiness and money. “Money, maybe,” I reply, excited despite myself, “but happiness, no! It is past, my happiness!”

The conversation takes another turn, and when the gentlemen join us, gaiety abounds.

When Mr de Blainville learns that his daughter told us our horoscopes, he also wants his own fortune told, and laughingly exclaims: “It is unfortunate that I am not a widower, otherwise maybe I would marry Madame Bourbonnaud.” And everyone laughs at this joke.

Poor man! He would die, just six months later!

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Calling a Malabar on the street

But the hour of parting has arrived and I’m about to take my leave. I am asked to wait a bit and I learn that Résident Général has ordered a carriage with two horses to take me back to the Hôtel de l’Univers. And he will accompany me!

Surprised at such an honour, I protest that I don’t want to cause a disturbance and can easily find a hire carriage to take me. But he insists, and after bidding my hosts farewell, I go back to the hotel in great style, accompanied to my door by Mr Richaud himself. Such attention and honour for the simple traveller!

Poor Mr Richaud! He would never see our beautiful and dear France again, I heard that unfortunately he died on the ship that was conveying him back to Marseille. Now who would have thought that?

I had for a moment considered the possibility of visiting Australia; but on second thoughts, I will not make this trip now. What good would it be carrying my money to the English?

I thought about it this afternoon while watching the prisoners at work. It’s true that Australia is on the way to New Caledonia, which itself belongs to France, and I ‘d be curious to see it. But this time I will not make the long journey. I’ll see it later.

Thursday 30 August 1888

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The top end of rue Catinat (Đồng Khởi street), Saigon

It’s still raining this morning, rain so heavy that it wakes me up. My watch stopped during the night, it’s just daybreak and it’s overcast. What time is it? There’s a clock in the room, but it doesn’t work… if it ever worked! I get dressed and go down to the hotel lobby: the clock at the front desk says 7.30am; it is not yet time to show up in the streets, especially in the pouring rain. Better to go back to my room and scribble a few pages in my notebook.

“Practice makes perfect,” says the proverb. I, by force of travelling through Saigon and its surrounding areas, begin to know all the carriage drivers and their vehicles.

The closed carriages here are called Malabars, probably after those in India. In Madras, Pondicherry, Singapore and Saigon, they are all alike, indeed they seem to have been built on the same pattern. They are quite unsightly when their shutters are down; but as soon as the windows are revealed, the carriages have a much nicer appearance.

As for my friends, the drivers – who don’t want to take me anywhere because they think that I want to go too far – they are of all races: Chinese, Indian, Annamite, etc, and even a few Europeans. Some Annamite drivers wear on their heads a large tortoiseshell comb and a sort of turban, the ends of which hang down on either side of their ears. Others wear on their heads a special Chinese-style hat, round in shape and made of white canvas, which somewhat resembles the hat worn by millers in Paris.

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Street merchants in Saigon

Yesterday I bought a beautiful carved sandalwood panel; the wood is dark yellow in colour and it emits a very strong and pleasant smell. Here they also make sandalwood boxes, fans, statues and a thousand other knick-knacks with which we like to adorn our shelves. But as always, one must beware of counterfeits; sandalwood is a precious wood and, of course, expensive to source. Some unscrupulous traders sell objects made with the first wood they can get their hands on, adding a few drops of fragrant oil to replicate the characteristic aroma of real sandalwood.

Here in Saigon one often sees street vendors carrying on their shoulders a long piece of wood with ropes at each end supporting baskets: they are balanced like a set of scales.

Out in the villages, one sometimes sees in front of houses a box containing strings of cooked chicken, sausages and roast pork pieces, all ready to be consumed. Needless to say, these displays immediately attract the attention of many flies! This is hardly appetising, and when I see the places where this food was prepared, I have no wish to try it, I assure you! But it takes all tastes, does it not? And there are certainly plenty of takers for these snacks.

One thing I always admire here is the very graceful way in which women, lying in hammocks, cradle their babies. Although they themselves appear motionless, the hammocks rock back and forward at the discretion of the mother and the child does not take long to fall asleep. All this forms a very pretty picture, full of charm and naturalness.

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A pipe smoker in Saigon

My Chinese friends opposite have in their shop a large pipe that is smoked by everyone; when one person has finished puffing, it is passed to another, and so on around the group. It is a large wooden pipe about 1m in length, with a tiny holder in the middle where the smoker places a small amount of tobacco; once lit, this tobacco does not last long. Here they smoke just a little at a time; if a Chinese person tries to smoke a pipe like a European, he quickly feels dizzy and becomes sick. Our troopers sometimes have fun offering a tobacco pipe to a local person, who, proud of such an honour, bravely starts smoking in the European manner. But it does not take long for him to repent of his temerity!

A Chinese person will never go out on the street without his umbrella. With his long-sleeved jacket that fully covers his hands, we may believe that he has no arms. And between the bottom of his pants – which barely extend beyond the knees – to his open shoes with thick felt soles, one can see the most quaint feet and calves.

We know that every Chinese character forms a complete word and these characters are very difficult to translate because of their large number and widespread application. But something which seems even more difficult, perhaps, is to understand the spoken language. I have listened many times to conversations between the “heavenly ones,” but I find it difficult to comprehend that the same words can be pronounced with different intonations. No! decidedly, Chinese is not equal to our beautiful French language!

A heavy carriage stops in front of the hotel; it is the eau-de-soda siphon merchant, who brings ice and other provisions for the day. It goes without saying that the ice here is artificially made, and yet it is cheap: just 20 centimes per kilo. We use a great deal of it.

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A late 19th century Saigon street scene

On the other side of the street, several ladies dressed in white get down from their Malabars at the door of the shoemaker, who has a certain reputation for skill: I also had the opportunity to appreciate his talent. He repaired a boot for me very efficiently and made no attempt to cheat me by making a hole in the other one.

A cloud – that’s the word – of servants invades my room; they come to clean and it’s no small matter, ah no! First, I ask them to change the bed sheets: that requires a special officer; a second brings the sheets and the first charges a third to place these on the mattress; he condescends to lend a hand while his colleague makes the bed. That’s nice of him! An “unofficial” fourth deals with the bathroom; single-handedly, he empties the bowl, changes the towel, and fills the pot with water. I am impressed!

A fifth sweeps the room and gathers all the dust into a small pile that the sixth collects carefully and carries outside, while dropping three quarters en route. There are two others who shake the rug from the balcony…. and let it drop on the head of the manager, who is smoking his cigar in the garden below! But that’s not all! The last two servants share the rest of the work to be done: one crosses his arms and the other looks on! This is what it is called domesticity. And let me tell you, they are stubborn as mules and do not want to change this routine in any way.

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A young Vietnamese girl in the late 19th century

The rain’s stopped; I go back to the window and watch the world go by. I’m starting to get used to it and I can now distinguish Annamite men from Annamite women. Annamite men and women both wear loose trousers known as ke-quan and a black smock called the ke-o. But while the women wear their hair in a very small bun held with pins, the men have a much larger chignon. So here is a formula to recognise the sexes in Indochina! This formula was recommended to me by a local person: it may not be very academic, but it’s easy to remember.

I observe a Chinese hairdresser at work. He begins by unclasping the hair, which is then washed with water from a bucket. Then he carefully cleans the customer’s neck, dries the hair and rearranges it in a chignon. Finally, he takes out his razor and gives it a trim.

The hair is not worn very long; but fashion requires that it be of respectable dimensions, so the Chinese lengthen it by a braiding with silk. Thus, many of the “little masters” sport a ponytail which hangs down to the middle of their backs. Poor Chinese, who do not have the means to pay for costly silk hair extensions, use string or whatever else they can find.

After lunch, I go once more to the offices of the Messageries maritimes; but I had forgotten that it is still siesta time and find it once more closed.

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Built in 1862-1863, the Sài Gòn headquarters of the Compagnie des messageries maritimes was one of the very first civic buildings constructed by the French in Sài Gòn

In that case, I, who do not take a midday siesta and do not like to waste time, will visit the Museum [at this time run by the Société des Études Indochinoises and housed in a Paris Foreign Missions Society villa at 16 rue de La Grandière, now Lý Tự Trọng]. It’s all upside down, because, according to the conservator I met at Mr de Blainville’s house, a shipment of the most valuable objects is currently being prepared for the Paris Exhibition of 1889.

This amiable civil servant shows me around the site of the new museum, currently under construction. Oh! What a beautiful monument it will be when it is completed! The city is paying for it, it is clear that here we are in a rich country that does not worry about expense when it comes to embellishments.

Leaving the museum curator, I go to buy some more trinkets in a curiosity shop: some Chinese prints, a Buddha made from camphor wood, a beautiful painted fan mounted on sandalwood and a little Mandarin carved from a piece of ivory. When I choose these objects I ask the price and am told 50 piastres (about 200 francs!).

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Chinese shops on rue Catinat (Đồng Khởi street), Saigon

I protest, as is fair; we discuss, we squabble a bit, the Chinese shopkeeper and I, but we finish by reaching a compromise. I take out my wallet and let him see the gold coins inside. Gold is very popular here, and when you make a payment using this currency, you’re sure to get a good bargain. The gold has the desired effect and I take all my trinkets after leaving 30 francs in the hands of the shopkeeper, who earlier had asked me for 200. I’m sure that in Paris these items would cost no less than 300 francs!

By now, the gentlemen at the Messageries maritimes must surely have finished their nap, so I return to the shipping office and at last I find it open. I buy a ticket to Yokohama, a place I intend to visit before returning to France. The office is located on the quayside, opposite the shipping wharf, and is quite far from the city. On the quai des Chinois are the consulates of both Britain and Germany; their buildings touch each other; and today there is even a German warship in the port. Here, our good friends across the Rhine are forced, willy-nilly, to admire the wealth and prosperity of our beautiful colony; they certainly have no equivalent.

Back at the hotel, I prepare myself for a cold bath, as always. But I’ve found that the hydrotherapy unit, which did so much to gain my admiration when I first arrived, doesn’t always work properly. When I go to turn on the stopcock, I succeed only with great difficulty and end up showering myself a little more than I would have desired. I laugh, of course, because when travelling, this kind of thing can be expected.

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Chinese merchants on rue Catinat (Đồng Khởi street), Saigon

I get dressed and go back to my room. Right under my window, a Chinese woman walks by, wearing a costume of many colours, with a pearl necklace and flowers in her hair. In front of her walks a servant; another follows.

Just then, a fight breaks out in the shoemaker’s shop opposite: the “heavenly ones” are very funny when they argue; the sound of their voices is dry and brittle. I see that by the time they come to blows; one of them has wrapped braid around his head to avoid his opponent seizing his hair. Fortunately, their assistants manage to restore order.

Going down to the dining room for dinner, I observe one of the waiters removing a toothpick from the table, using it and then, when he sees me watching him, putting it back again! That’s good to know; now I will avoid touching these little implements! The manager, with whom I share my observation, does not seem surprised; he tells me that, despite all his efforts, he has been unable to make his staff understand that reusing toothpicks is unhygienic.

To read part 5 of this serialisation click here

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

Old Saigon Building of the Week – Former Foyer du Soldat et du Marin, 1937

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The 1930s-built Foyer du Soldat et du Marin in the late colonial period

This article was published previously in Saigoneer http://saigoneer.com

Originally founded in the 1890s by General Théophile Pennequin (1849-1916), Commandant supérieur des troupes de l’Indo-Chine, the Foyer du Soldat et du Marin (Soldiers and Sailors Club) was initially known variously as the Cercle or Maison des Soldats et Marins.

The Library and Salon de Lecture of the original Maison des Soldats et des Marins, set up in the 1890s

It was located from the outset at its current site, in front of the main 11th Colonial Infantry Barracks on boulevard Norodom (modern Lê Duẩn), which a 1906 Saigon visitors’ guidebook (Saïgon-Souvenir, petit guide saigonnais à l’usage des passagers des débutants dans la colonie) calls “the most beautiful military barracks in the entire world.”

The same guidebook describes the facilities of the Cercle des Soldats et Marins as “a lovely building which serves as a meeting and reading room with a library containing 1,500 volumes.” It continues: “At certain times, a military theatre company gives evening performances in a special room and a café run by the Cercle sells food and drinks at deeply discounted prices.”

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The Café of the original Maison des Soldats et des Marins, set up in the 1890s

“All this gives the military the means to entertain themselves without leaving the neighbourhood, and especially without large expenditure. If one mentions also the games of all kinds installed in the garden of the Cercle and the exciting sporting events held here, we think, with good reason, that the French soldier, in comparison with the soldiers of other nations, is much better served in every respect.”

However, the Cercle seems to have operated on a very limited budget until 1910, when the Colonial Council, recognising that it “has very few resources and needs to be supported and encouraged,” granted it an annual subvention of 200 Francs in order that “our humble soldiers and sailors, away from their families and homeland, find themselves a range of varied and healthy distractions.”

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Another late colonial period shot of the 1930s-built Foyer du Soldat et du Marin

In subsequent years, the Cercle became a popular venue for a wide variety of functions, including shooting contests, flower shows, automobile exhibitions and cinematographic exhibitions.

The building was reconstructed in its present art deco-inspired form in 1936-1937 and entrusted to the administration of the newly-established Fédération du Foyer du Soldat et du Marin. The facilities of the rebuilt Foyer du Soldat et du Marin included a bar, a library, a small stage and outdoor sports facilities, including a swimming pool.

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The National Defence College in 1972

After the departure of the French, the Foyer du Soldat et du Marin building became a clubhouse for members of President Ngô Đình Diệm’s elite Republican Guard.

Then in 1967, the building was transformed into the National Defence College (Trường Cao Đẳng Quốc Phòng), an elite school for the training of ARVN officers over the grade of Colonel.

Since 1986, the old Foyer du Soldat et du Marin building has functioned as the Hồ Chí Minh Campaign Museum, which documents the final stages of the war to liberate the South in 1973-1975.

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The Hồ Chí Minh Campaign Museum in 2003

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The Hồ Chí Minh Campaign Museum today

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

Saigon Through the Eyes of Early Travellers – Louise Bourbonnaud in 1888, Part 3

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A Saigon taxi rank, late 19th century style

In mid 1888, wealthy French widow Louise Bourbonnaud set off alone on an extended voyage of discovery which took in India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Singapore, Cochinchina, China and Japan. She spent over a week in Saigon and her 1892 book Les Indes et l’Extrême Orient, impressions de voyage d’une parisienne provides us with a fascinating,  if somewhat condescending, account of late 19th century colonial life. This is the third of a series of instalments from her book, translated into English.

To read part 1 of this serialisation click here.

To read part 2 of this serialisation click here

Monday 27 August 1888

You can hardly criticise me for spending too much time resting, because I limit my rest to what is strictly necessary and am on the go all day. Also, it’s not even lunch time yet and I am out. It’s good to walk in the mornings or evenings here, since in the middle of the day it is painfully hot.

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The monument to Mekong River explorer commandant Doudard de Lagrée which stood at the centre of place Rigault de Genouilly (modern Mê Linh square)

I see in the middle of a garden [modern Mê Linh square] a monument to [Mekong River explorer] commandant Doudard de Lagrée.

Then, after a few random laps of the city, I find myself in front of the Chinese store in which I did my first shop the other day.

he owner is on the doorstep; he recognises me and greets me kindly. I exchange a few words with him and let him lead me into the store. These “heavenly ones” are traders of the first order. they are thoroughly familiar with the art of attracting and ensnaring the client! I don’t leave without buying a few items, including a Chinese lantern, a rice paper album with a pink silk cover, and a wonderful ivory card holder, decorated with artistically engraved sculptures.

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A Chinese shop on rue Catinat (Đồng Khởi street)

A beautifully fragrant engraved sandalwood panel draws my admiration, I propose an exchange to the merchant: the panel for one of the white stone figures I bought in Singapore. After ensuring that his big round glasses are firmly fixed on the bridge of the nose, the good shop owner examines the stone figure and, after much thought and discussion, finally accepts my offer. Methinks he got a good deal and that my white stone figure is actually worth several times the price of the sandalwood panel: it had cost me one rupee.

There’s no shortage of vehicles for hire here in Saigon, and I don’t have far to go to find a carriage: there’s a Malabar station near the hotel. But often the horses are not up to the task; many of the poor creatures are not fully grown and have little fat on them. They should definitely eat more straw than barley or oats. This morning fate deals me an unlucky hand; After carrying my purchases back to the hotel, I jump into a waiting Malabar for an excursion around the neighbourhood. But I soon become angry with my Malabar driver because his exhausted horse stops at every corner; the poor thing is exhausted and can no longer walk!

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The Château d’eau or water tower which once stood on the Turtle Lake intersection

I stop for a moment to look at the artesian well [the Château d’eau or water tower which once stood on the Turtle Lake intersection]: It is a beautiful work on a very high platform, which features a spiral staircase fitted into a cage. The locals were astonished when they saw the devils from the west take spring water from the ground, I can imagine their amazement!

Now I want to go further, but the poor beast has no desire to continue; it’s impossible to get it to move! Maybe it’s afraid of the buffalo with huge horns which walks past at that moment, led by a young Annamite boy. Such a beast, if it became angry, could throw my little carriage, my horse, my big lout of a driver… even me, up into the air! But the buffalo has a very peaceful demeanour and it seems that it doesn’t want to get angry.

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Another view of the Doudard de Lagrée monument

Finally, the horse decides to take a few steps, but it doesn’t take long before it once more grinds to a halt. This time it’s because of a snake, which is leisurely winding its way across the road. Before leaving the hotel, I bought a few pieces of sugar cane that I now chew philosophically. I rather like chewing sugar cane, it’s very refreshing, but the sugar cane here is not as good as that in Martinique, which tasted much better. I offer it to my driver.

I eventually decide to go back to the hotel, because lunchtime is approaching and I also want to get ready for my afternoon visit. Once again, I pass in front of the statue of commandant Doudard de Lagrée, and this time I read the inscription on the pedestal:

Upon reaching our goal,
Death surprises us.

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A high-ranking colonial administrator’s residence set in beautiful gardens

“It’s 3pm when I descend from the Malabar at the house of Mr Céloron de Blainville, Director of Local Services, who comes out to meet and welcome me.

This,” he says, pointing to a large building, “is my office; our residence is a little further on, in the middle of those gardens.” I stop for a moment, amazed at the beauty of the gardens, which are adorned with all the treasures of tropical flora, and then follow my gracious host, who leads me towards his house.

The house that the government has put at the disposition of Mr de Blainville and his family meets all the wishes of colonial comfort. This place lacks nothing, with huge and well-ventilated rooms. In the master bedroom, there are two large beds covered in mosquito nets, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers and several other pieces of locally-sourced furniture. Daylight streams in through six windows, that’s to say there’s no shortage of light.

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A salon in one of the larger villas

One thing that surprises me at first is that all the mirrors in the house, without exception, are broken! Of course, I dare not comment on this, but obviously my kind host notices my look of astonishment:

“You find it strange, dear Madame, to see my poor mirrors in this mess! Well, I ‘ll tell you why. My predecessor’s young son had a mania – I dare not qualify it as innocence – to break mirrors! Of course, each takes his pleasure where he finds it, although I confess that I really don’t understand that particular pleasure. Anyway, I hope that all the damage will soon be repaired, and be assured that my own children certainly do not entertain themselves in this way!”

I walk successively through a nursery, a huge living room with two chandaliers hanging from the ceiling where official balls and other events are held, a large dining room furnished with carved furniture, and finally a bathroom with a bath big enough to accommodate four people – more like an indoor pool!

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The exterior of a colonial administrator’s residence

A wide verandah runs all around the house, keeping the ground floor rooms free from excessive heat.

Hidden behind clumps of greenery are staff accommodation, stables and garages where my hosts keep their fleet: horses, two carriages and a staff to match. It seems that before they arrived here the de Blainvilles had not expected to be offered such a comfortable arrangement, so they are delighted with their position – as one would be! Mrs de Blainville, who joins us and is a most gracious hostess, welcomes the fact that her dear children will be able to learn to ride a horse and drive a carriage.

As part of their contract, my friends are supplied at no cost with table linen, kitchen equipment (including pots and pans) and many other household items. What a saving! They aren’t even responsible for breakages, but on one condition – that that they keep the broken pieces to show to the finance office. Then the objects are immediately replaced. Fortunately, the expenses budget will cheerfully pay for mirrors broken by a terrible child, since there is nothing easier than to show the pieces!

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Rue Garcerie, now Phạm Ngọc Thạch street

Mrs de Blainville sends her two youngest sons to change a banknote at the Résident-Général’s office. But the children are somewhat slow to return, and the mother becomes very concerned and starts to imagine that someone has kidnapped or killed her children! She begins to cry, and I try my best to reassure her. Finally, the two boys return home, bringing the money they fetched… and no one has said a word to them on the road!

I think that back in Paris, people don’t have a very fair idea of the colonies. Certainly, there are some colonies which cost the Métropole a great deal of money, but for a long time now, thank God, Cochinchina has not been one of those! The best proof is that each year, Cochinchina contributes I do not know how many millions towards the expenses for the occupation of Tonkin [Northern Việt Nam]. In order to have colonies which spread our influence far and wide, we must be prepared to make some small – even large – sacrifices. France has never balked from this, and now she begins to reap the benefits.

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A malabar awaits customers

I pass several hours with the charming de Blainville family, hours which will never fade from my memory, and I thank heaven for letting me get to know such good friends. Everyone, young and old, gathers around me, monopolises my attention and makes pleasantries. It takes all my strength to accept a gift of a Chinese book which the youngest son wants me to have.

I return to my hotel, still moved by their spontaneous friendship. The manager gives me two newspapers: Le Saïgon and l’Indo-Chine; the first costs 12 cents, that is to say, 60 centimes, and the second 15 cents, equivalent to 75 centimes! We cannot say that the press here is cheap! However, these papers are still interesting; they give the news from Europe, America and Australia; the movement of the port, including the arrival and departure of ships and commercial vessels; notices of auctions; and theatre reviews. For six months of the year, a French theatre company gives performances here which attract a strong following.

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Chinese merchants on rue Catinat (Đồng Khởi street)

Tonight, the thought comes to me that my birthday passed three days ago and no one thought of sending me good wishes. Poor Louisette! That’s what it means to set off around the world on your own!

To distract me from this sad thought, I look out of the window at my industrious neighbours, who have for a moment interrupted their hard work to eat their frugal dinner. I see them clearly, squatting on their mats in the back of their shop, the very large door of which at that moment is open to allow the cool of the evening to make itself felt. They pick with their chopsticks at something I can’t recognise from this distance; but I think it’s meat – something extra, then!

Their lighting is quite modest, consisting of a small oil lamp. Today the use of oil lamps is quite widespread in the Far East and there is hardly a remote village which doesn’t have several. All the same, I still wonder how the local workers can see enough to continue their work in the evening, not to mention what they did in days gone by when all they had was primitive candle light.

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Malabars on rue Catinat (Đồng Khởi street)

In front of the hotel, several Malabars are parked, waiting for clients, but gradually the hubbub of the evening diminishes and calm is restored. I sit on the verandah, overlooking the inner garden of the hotel. Lizards come and go silently, catching mosquitos as they pass. They are welcome to eat these horrible little wild beasts that feed on human blood!

The evening breeze has cleared the sky and the stars twinkle merrily up above!

Tuesday 28 August 1888

This morning, it’s not so hot; the sun is nowhere to be seen in the sky and the breeze blows strongly from the river, laden with salty flavours. I’m certainly not complaining about this fresh weather, and in the morning, I pay a visit to the tomb of the bishop of Adran, who was the friend of the Emperor Gia Long and who died at the end of the last century.

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The Plaine des tombeaux (Plain of Tombs), a vast burial ground which once covered large parts of modern Districts 3 and 10

I go by Malabar, as usual, first taking the road I followed the other day to go to Cholon, passing a plain covered in tombs. Some of these tombs are centuries old; several are decorated with carved dragons or grimacing figurines. Ivy or grass covers them all and gives the countryside quite a melancholy look. My driver jabbers a little in French, and, as he seems a bit smarter than his colleagues, I manage to draw some information out of him.

This factory we are passing is a sugar factory; my driver tells me that it belongs to a rich proprietor who owns 200 houses and has a fortune of many millions. I wish this unknown gentleman well, but I remember the old saying in my country: Do not believe half of what people say.

A little further on we pass an ice factory. There is no need to emphasise the importance of ice as an object of daily consumption in this fiery climate.

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The route coloniale leading west from Saigon

The land on this side of the city must be a bit higher, because there are no rice fields alongside the road, which is lined with large trees.

We arrive at the race course [the original one located in the area south of the modern Saigon Railway Station], where civil servants and military officers come to lose their piastres and the locals their sapeks. Annamites have a much more developed passion for gambling than us and they never miss an opportunity to bet.

Then the car stops at what in France we would call a level crossing; Needless to say, barriers and gatekeepers are absent. Fortunately, members of the public deputise, and we wait for a train to pass before crossing the road. It’s not a real railway line, for that kind of transportation is lacking in these parts; it’s a Decauville line which works in the service of the army. We have arrived at a military installation [the Nouvelles casernes d’artillerie coloniale or New Colonial Infantry Barracks, which after 1954 became Camp Lê Văn Duyệt, headquarters of the Third Corps of the ARVN], everywhere can be seen signs reading Terrain appartenant à l’armée, Terrain de l’artillerie, etc. We see only barracks, and those Annamese riflemen with their chignons and plate-hats.

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The tomb of Pigneau de Béhaine, Bishop of Adran

Eventually, we stop in front of the tomb of the bishop of Adran [see also the article Lăng Cha Cả – From Mausoleum… to Roundabout!] ; it is located in the middle of a small cemetery, the main gate of which, built in the local architectural style, resembles the entrance to a pagoda. The tombs in the cemetery belong solely to Catholic priests, some of whom died in Cochinchina, others in Annam, Tonkin and Cambodia, and whose remains were finally transported here. The tomb of the bishop himself is located in the centre of a grand mausoleum and is without inscription; two other tombs are placed to the right and left.

It was towards the beginning of the 17th century that the first Christian missionaries penetrated into Cochinchina, where they were well received at first, both by the population and by the authorities. But besides the purely dogmatic precepts, the newcomers also brought with them some ideas which completely contradicted those followed for centuries and centuries by the governors of the country. Conflict and persecution followed. There is a long list of those who paid in blood for their faith on these distant shores, paving the way for the future triumph of these broad and fertile ideas, which the flag of France has always sheltered beneath its folds.

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Pigneau de Béhaine, painted by Maupérin during his 1787 trip to Paris with Crown Prince Cảnh, on display at the Paris Foreign Missions Society

At certain times, however, intelligence reigned in the relationship between the government and missionaries.

The Emperor of Annam, Gia Long, owed to Monsignor Pignaud de Béhaine, Bishop of Adran, first his life and then his crown. Driven from the throne by competitors, the prince took refuge with the bishop and later, with the support of several French officers brought into Annam by Monsignor Pignaud, Gia Long was able to defeat his enemies, retake the throne and reorganise his kingdom. It is from this period that all the large defensive fortresses and citadels in this country date, and which were constructed according to the principles established by Vauban.

Gia Long did not forget the services which had been rendered to him; French officers, collaborators in his restoration, were showered with honours and distinctions and the bishop of Adran continued to have a considerable influence on the mind of the Emperor. On the death of his friend, this wise and prudent counsellor he had valued and worshipped, Gia Long arranged a beautiful funeral and raised this tomb, which is now a place for excursions and promenades for the inhabitants of Saigon.

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Malabars on boulevard Charner (Nguyễn Huệ boulevard)

Before I leave the cemetery, I give several sou to the boy who opened the door for me; I am guessing that these coins are not commonly used here, because the little boy was delighted with them.

Here we go again! The driver wants to return, because, he says, his horse is tired. That is possible, but if the poor beast was better nourished, it would be stronger and would not be so exhausted after such a short trip.

It seems that, among the Malabar drivers of Saigon, I already have a reputation as a killer of horses (!) by making trips which, in their opinion, are too long. Yesterday, I asked a driver to pick me up at the hotel, but he was unwilling to do so. This one had a good horse, and that’s why I wanted to use him. He had probably talked to a colleague, who deterred him from the rendezvous.

I end up insisting that my driver should continue, but achieving this is not without difficulty. I promise him another piastre and he accepts only after much discussion. In addition, I must consent to let him go and change horses first. I agree, and afterwards we return to Cholon along the banks of the arroyo.

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A corner of the main market in Chợ Lớn

What activity prevails here, everyone is rushing around ! There are all kinds of factories and merchant businesses. In one shop, I see a carpenter making coffins of sandalwood, this wood which smells so good, and to my amazement, I notice that one side of the coffin interior is lined with a mirror! What a strange idea! What is it for? Surely the dead do not need to see their reflections!

I buy some more pieces of sugar cane to eat on the road, as that is quite the custom here, and one which pleases me very much, as I’ve said previously.

As in Saigon, the various industries are gathered in streets which specialise in particular trades. I walk along the rue des des Ébénistes [now Trần Tường Công, District 5], where cabinetmakers’ shops are pressed one against the other. Here may be found skilled designers of a thousand trinkets for which European and American tourists compete with offers of bank notes. If one wants to get caught, one can easily buy too many things here, as at every step there are wonderful pieces of exquisite workmanship, for sale at relatively low prices.

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Colonial soldiers gathering for a ceremony

One thing not lacking in Cholon is the military; they are everywhere; it is true that the barracks are not far apart, and for the soldier, it is a pleasure, because when he is on leave, he can stroll here amongst the crowd. In Cholon there is so much to see and the soldier’s or sailor’s every wish is served to perfection. Army and navy personnel fraternise here, raising their glass to the health of their distant country, dear France, which they left with enthusiasm and which, alas, more than one of them will never see again.

I return along the same road by which I had come, this beautiful road bordered with tall trees, whose shade is so good.

I pass the Chinese cemetery at the side of the road, in front of which is a wall with a large door in the middle; but at the two sides and at the rear it has no wall whatsoever! This is an economy I can’t understand! It reminds me of the churches of some pueblos in South America, which consist of a large decorative stone wall and, behind it, a small mud hut.

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A mandarin’s tomb

The dream of every Chinese person is that after his death his remains will be laid to rest in his native land, but it should not be assumed that everyone can realise this wish beyond the grave. For a rich Chinese, there is no difficulty: when he dies, his body is buried here temporarily and later, under appropriate conditions, shipped to Canton or elsewhere. But for a poor Chinese, things don’t go quite the same way. The deceased is buried here permanently, as no one has the funds to pay for a post-mortem journey. In this way, he is left until the last judgment in the place where he passed from life to death.

On the road I pass a group of carriages in which several mandarins are seated; these are judges who look very serious and seem to have a very high idea of the functions vested in them.

Returning to Saigon, I take another promenade in the Jardin des plantes, admiring again the tigers, lions and bears and also seeing an animal which I did not see last time: an orang-utang, or “man of the woods,” if you want to translate these two Malay words. Oh, what a monkey! It’s the size of a man, but with longer arms and stronger hands; its head is huge and its face is beardless, while its whole body is covered with long hairs.

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An orang-utang in a colonial zoo

The orang-utang has a large broken tree branch in its cage. It stands against the wall and climbs as high as it can go, then drops down, to the delight of the spectators, who let fly at the animal with all sorts of comments, which hardly seem to bother it. What interests the animal more is the zookeeper who has just arrived with a glass of beer. The orang-utang, which is no doubt very familiar with the procedure to be executed, arches its back and opens its mouth, into which the man then slowly pours the beer, which the consumer seems to appreciate.

A large audience has gathered to watch this little scene: Chinese and Annamite rub shoulders with Malabar. Malay, Japanese and French, as all the onlookers share their thoughts with each other in a heterogeneous language where grammar and syntax have no place.

As I leave the Jardin des plantes, my Malabar driver starts his whining again: “My horse can do no more! It cannot go further! The poor beast is half dead!” Conclusion: We must go to the stables. There is, of course, another conclusion, and that’s that I pay a supplement to keep going, and I think that’s what my tricky looking driver wants. But I don’t let him cheat me this time, and since the horse is tired, we return to Saigon.

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Chettyar traders

We pass a village inhabited almost exclusively by Indians. It is clear that we are in the presence of a different race. The men are tall and slender, with beautiful eyes; they arrange their hair in a coquettish fashion and lovingly look after their teeth. These Indians would never think of chewing that awful betel! Their hair hangs down to the middle of their backs, or they tie it up in a small chignon.

The Indian women are also very attractive; I had the opportunity to observe their deep, soft black eyes during my trips to British India and later to French Pondicherry.

These Indians are beautiful living statues, worthy to serve as models for our artists, sculptors and painters, and whose forms, copied with talent, can appear honorably alongside the masterpieces of antiquity.

To read part 4 of this serialisation click here

To read part 5 of this serialisation click here

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

Saigon’s Palais Norodom – A Palace Without Purpose

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An aerial view of the palais du Gouvernement-général, later known as the Norodom Palace

This article was published previously in Saigoneer http://saigoneer.com

Though now nearly half a century old, the current Unification Palace was conceived as a modern replacement for the Norodom Palace, a much grander French building which had stood on the same site before it for over 90 years.

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Another view of the palais du Gouvernement-général

After occupying the six southernmost provinces of Việt Nam, the French grouped them together on 25 June 1867 as Cochinchina, to be ruled henceforward as a colony. Then on 23 February 1868, Admiral-Governor Pierre-Paul de la Grandière solemnly laid the first stone as work began on an imposing new colonial government headquarters in Saigon.

The new “palais du Gouvernement-général” was built in neo-Baroque style to plans by Parisian architect Achille-Antoine Hermitte (1840-?), designer of the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Guangzhou (1866) and the first Hong Kong City Hall (1869), who apparently wanted to create a monument which would “honour the finest cities in the world.” Admiral-Governor Dupré took up residence in the building in 1873, although the decorative work was not complete until 1875.

The palace is said to have cost a staggering 12 million Francs, allegedly gobbling up more than a quarter of the colony’s public works budget.

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The palace illuminated in the early 20th century

According to an 1885 description: “The palace has a façade not less than 80 metres in length, with two pavilions at either end and a central dome, access ramp and covered stairway. The ground floor, raised above a basement and containing kitchens and ancillary rooms, contains: on the right, offices, the cabinet of the Governor; on the left, the council chamber, the dining room, the telegraph room and the secretariat of the Privy Council; and in the middle, a magnificent hall with a double marble staircase by which one ascends to the first floor rooms. At the end of the hall is the richly decorated ceremonial room, which backs perpendicularly onto the rear façade of the palace and may easily accommodate 800 guests.”

Yet while no expense was spared constructing the palace,subsequent events would conspire to make it virtually redundant, a mere 14 years after its inauguration.

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The salle des fêtes (events hall) of the Palais du Gouvernement

In October 1887, Cochinchina was united with Annam, Tonkin and Cambodia to form the Indo-Chinese Union, under a Governor-General based in Hà Nội. The Governors of Cochinchina were downgraded into Lieutenant Governors and, according to the prevailing logic, Lieutenant Governors were not senior enough to reside in what one commentator described as a “princely residence, sumptuously set amidst extensive gardens.” A trade exhibition hall then under construction nearby was hastily repurposed, at considerable cost, to serve as a Lieutenant-Governor’s Palace [the building which now houses the Hồ Chí Minh City Museum] and opened in 1890.

Consequently, for the remainder of the colonial period, the “palais du Gouvernement-général,” known from the early 20th century as the Norodom Palace, was used only as a ceremonial venue and office for the Governors General on the occasions when they visited the south.

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The Governor General and his guest Marshal Joffre leaving the palace by car in December 1921

In his Indo-Chine française (souvenirs) of 1905, Governor-General Paul Doumer commented: “When we arrived there in 1897, the palace felt like it was abandoned, since it had been left for 10 years. This was because the Governor General, always based in Tonkin which he administered, no longer lived in Cochinchina other than by exception, in passing and for just a few days.”

To make matters worse, the land on which the palace stood had not been surveyed properly before construction began, and ongoing subsidence necessitated frequent and costly remedial work. In 1893 the central dome had to be replaced.

By the 1920s the vast sums spent on the palace and its apparent pointlessness had become a matter of public debate. The 7 November 1926 edition of the newspaper L’Eveil économique de l’Indochine even went as far as commenting cheekily: “What a magificent hotel the Governor General’s Palace in Saigon would make!”

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Madame Nhu surveys the damage with the press in tow following the bombing of 27 February 1962

On 7 September 1954, High Commissioner General Paul Ély, so-called “liquidator” of French Indochina, handed over the Norodom Palace to the new South Vietnamese administration. Its name was changed to Independence Palace (Dinh Ðộc lập) and in subsequent years, it belatedly found a useful role to play as Ngô Ðình Diệm’s presidential palace. However, this new role would not last.

On 27 February 1962, a coup faction in the South Vietnamese armed forces sent fighter pilots Nguyễn Văn Cử and Phạm Phú Quốc in two AD6 aircraft to drop bombs on the Norodom Palace, demolishing the entire left wing of the building. Instead of reconstructing it, Diệm ordered the demolition of the whole building and the construction of a new palace – the current one – in its place.

Today, just one fragment of the original Norodom Palace survives. The southeast gatehouse on Nguyễn Du street, which famously bore the brunt of the Tết 1968 attack on the presidential palace, is believed to date from the early 20th century.

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.